There’s a looming problem in America — a skilled labor shortage. Baby boomers are retiring and they’re leaving behind careers that require skilled workers to take their place.
“It’s not just digging a hole or putting in pipe or anything like that. There’s a reason, there’s codes we follow, there’s laws we follow,” explained Richard Veitengruber, President of the Livingston and McLean County Building and Trades Council
A career in the trades can mean anything from manufacturing to road construction.
“People who generally like to work in these fields, in the welding field, and the electricians, they like to work with their hands,” explained Dr. Dana King, the Instructional Chair of Business and Technology at Heartland Community College. “It’s not just someone, you know, moving things with their hands. It’s being able to think on the job, problem-solving.”
But fewer young people are looking at skilled labor as a career option. At Heartland Community College, the average student in the trade program is someone changing careers or looking for a new job.
“High school students are not typically entering these programs straight out of high school,” says Dr. King. “There is still a general perception but a four year degree is the only way to an upper middle-class lifestyle. And that’s just simply not true.”
Veitengruber is an electrician by trade. He says, the apprenticeship program is seeing fewer qualified people applying.
“We’ve tried different avenues. Application times, dates, times of the year to take applications. But, yes the numbers are down,” he said.
On the other hand, Tom Penn, Treasurer of the Building and Trades Council, says when it comes to road construction jobs, more people will apply when jobs are announced, and fewer during low construction times.
For young people, experts say, part of the problem can be perception.
“I think we fight the stigmatism’s that we are, they’re lazy, or they’re padded jobs,” said Veitengruber.
Jon Ginzel, the Director of Labor Relations at Caterpillar said, “There’s a general misconception about the jobs and about the working conditions. These are really modern, clean, bright, safe factories that people are working in.”
Dr. King added, “Welding and machining jobs in manufacturing are our dirty work and that they are low skilled jobs. And that’s not true either.
Instead, these jobs require technical training and skills in math, science, and technology.
“We’ve heard that saying that it’s not your fathers manufacturing anymore. All that holds true. A lot of these jobs require a different skill set than they did say even 30, 40 years ago,” said Dr. King.
Across the country, technical classes are being phased out as high schools focus on making sure more students are college ready.
“For some students, and for some people that is just not the best path,” explained Dr. King. “They’ve eliminated these programs and so students at the junior high and high school level don’t get a chance to learn how to work with their hands, or learn that. they like to work with their hands, or that that’s even a viable career for them”
Some companies, like Caterpillar, are partnering with local school districts to get kids interested in jobs that will bring them to work in factories or in the trades.
Ginzel explained, “It’s really important to have the relationship with the school so that we are developing the curriculum that we need.”
They want to get the word out there that a skilled labor job could be in a student’s best interest.
“They come with benefits, good pay. But you do have to work hard,” said Penn.
Veitengruber added, “You learn a trade that they can’t take away from you. I mean, we’re always going to need electricity, you’re always going to need plumbing, you’re always going to need, you know, heating and cooling and things like that”
Both Caterpillar and local trade unions host career fairs to generate interest in the careers.