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Workforce Development | Refilling the Technical Talent Pool

By Robert Hadley

Students participated in a carpentry competition during the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Louisville in June 2016.
Students participated in a carpentry competition during the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Louisville in June 2016.

Much attention was focused during the last presidential election cycle as to whether the federal government should subsidize college tuition as a way to help millennials navigate the choppy post-recession job market.

Public and private leaders continue to debate whether this would really help high-school graduates adapt to the uncertain economy they – and their baby boomer counterparts – are now facing, in which there seems to be a lack of adequately trained workers in both blue- and white-collar professions. Skills scarcities seems driven by not only by the advance of automation but the rise of big data, developments that together have left workers at both ends of the age and skill spectrum underemployed.

Within the discussion there is a re-examination of an often overlooked option: “trade school” and careers it prepares students for, occupations once fed by high-school industrial arts and vocational school programs and two-year technical schools.

However, if the term “industrial arts” calls to mind quaint memories of metal shop, woodworking and other hands-on training, or the “vocational schools” in which a slice of students a generation ago participated, Tim Lawrence, executive director of SkillsUSA, begs to differ.

Students and teachers in 1965 founded Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, known for years as VICA. After participating for years in the International Youth Skills Olympics, VICA founded the U.S. Skills Olympics in 1994, then in 1999 adopted the name SkillsUSA.

“I encourage anybody who hasn’t been in to see these programs in a few years to go in and take a look,” Lawrence said. “There are so many options now that are offered, students can choose any career pathway and get a head start on life and a good career.”

His confidence is well-founded. Today’s student in industrial arts or technical education is as likely to be studying the basics of robotic engineering and the programming needed to operate one as they are pipefitting, automotive repair or cabinetry fabrication. 

SkillsUSA has brought technical skills education, once almost an afterthought for college-bound students sweating over their SAT scores, to the forefront of the debate over just how much the federal government should provide to prepare students for the world of work once they graduate high school.

“It’s really transformed itself over the years to be an organization that focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education,” Josh Benton, executive director of workforce development at the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, explained regarding SkillsUSA. “While you have everything from traditional skilled trades represented, you also see an emphasis on healthcare, IT and manufacturing. It (covers) a diverse set of skills.”

Operating in secondary schools across all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands, SkillsUSA establishes chapters to set standards for training, promote competition and achievement via a national competition, and instill leadership and other “soft” skills in its students.

In June, Louisville again will host SkillsUSA’s National Leadership and Skills Conference, drawing 15,000 high-school and postsecondary contestants from across the country to compete in everything from robotics to culinary arts. Manufacturers like General Electric, Carhartt and Harley Davidson, as well as sponsors such as Lowe’s, Snap-On Tools, Toyota and State Farm Insurance, participate.

As the third-largest convention in Louisville, the competition contributes an estimated $18 million in tourism dollars to the local economy. Louisville is in the midst of hosting the event from 2015 through 2020.

Now seems the right time, Lawrence said, to reawaken interest in technical professions and skills training.

“In my lifetime, I’ve never seen the stars align like around this kind of education that we have right now,” he said. “The government is talking about it, governors are discussing it, Congress is talking about it. Right now, career technical education has suddenly become a viable alternative for all students.”

Skilled labor talent pool dried up

Back in 2016, Bob Weiss, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Kentucky, mentioned in an interview for The Lane Report that the state’s homebuilding industry was seeing a critical shortage of carpenters, electricians, HVAC technicians and other skilled workers. The shortage had prompted both his group and its northern Kentucky counterpart to launch their own schools to address the lack of qualified workers.

Weiss blamed the 2008 economic downturn and its domino effect on homebuilding for the migration of skilled workers to other fields.

Some builders “diversified (into) the remodeling market, but some people left the industry and never came back,” Weiss explained. “That not only includes builders, but people who work for builders: the skilled tradesmen, the carpenters, the framers, the finish carpenters and so on.”

The labor shortage is not only confined to Kentucky; experts say it is an issue nationally and even internationally as the economy rebounds from the recession and faces upheavals from automation in fields such as healthcare, manufacturing and transportation.

The Manpower Group’s 2016 Talent Shortage Report showed 38 percent of the more than 40,000 hiring managers in 43 countries surveyed reported difficulty finding qualified workers to staff open positions. Skilled labor was at the top of this list.

“The challenge Kentucky is seeing is not different from the rest of the country,” Benton said. “A lot of it has to do with technological change. Coming out of the recession really did change across all sectors what skills were required in certain occupations.”

Meanwhile, many high-school graduates and their families cling to an almost romanticized vision of the four-year bachelor’s degree as the holy grail of higher education, employability and a “better life,” despite some disturbing statistics. The website Debt.org reports that student loan debt has increased every year since 1999 and now checks in at $1.4 trillion, with the average bachelor’s-degreed student owing more than $37,000. CBS Market Watch reports nearly three-quarters of bachelor’s graduates have student debt, restricting the purchase of cars, homes and other economy-boosting purchases. 

Even for those with degrees who land good-paying jobs, payments toward the heavy debt load required to earn it may erase some of its benefits, at least in the short term.

Faced with this dilemma, astute high-school career counselors have been eager to encourage students to pursue skilled trades, but not necessarily as an end-game.

“Parents need to understand that their child can get a good education through a career pathway in technical education that will lead to a job but will also pay their way through college if they want to go on,” Lawrence said.

College for the rest of us

Of course, fundamental market forces are at play in the rise of SkillsUSA and other technical training programs. If demand for particular workers is high year after year, then the market will adjust to strengthen the pipeline of new, properly skilled employees. But meeting those needs has had the interesting side effect of creating opportunities for postsecondary education for students who may have been overlooked by colleges searching for those who are academically gifted.

As an example, Lawrence discussed his own struggles with learning algebra in high school.

“When I came through high school, I struggled,” Lawrence said. “When I got to Algebra 1, I hit a wall until I enrolled in a welding program. When I had been in that program a year, suddenly a light came on to me as a 17-year-old because suddenly I saw why I need algebra, math and science.”

Terry Miller, an engineering career theme specialist at the Jefferson County Public Schools, said he has seen the demand for technical skills training come full circle in his more than two decades of classroom experience. Two decades ago, he saw a high school remove a welding program due to lack of demand. Next year, he said, the welding program will be restored in that school.

“My theory is, through training in a career pathway in SkillsUSA, you put skills in a person’s toolbox that they can use to have something to live on, get employed and become a taxpayer,” Miller said. “If they decide to go to college later, their employer might pay for their tuition to make them a better person, a better employee, for them.”

Robert Hadley is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].