Training: Jobs Go Lacking, Opportunity Knocks

Sept. 10, 2015

At first glance the press release that landed on my desk didn’t look particularly notable—a Cleveland, OH-based marketing company announcing that it had just made a donation to the Construction Program Scholarship at a local community college. Given that the amount wasn’t large, it seemed more gesture than substantive action, and I was about to toss it when I remembered a recent jobs market report, which put Sonnhalter’s $2,000 donation to Cuyahoga Community College in a larger context.

The Economist had directed its spotlight on the gorilla in the living room that developed countries have been slow to address: the fact that technology and the dispersal of manufacturing jobs to third world countries have devalued, and in many cases, eliminated the brawn-based employment the blue collar workforce has traditionally depended on. This has left young men with poor or minimal educations struggling to find a place in the contemporary workforce, and posing significant economic and cultural challenges in affluent societies.

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In the United States, for example, pay for a man with only a high school education fell 21% between 1979 and 2013. For young men who don’t finish high school, the drop is 34%. In this country, one-fifth of working age men who hold only a high school diploma don’t have a job. And yet, as Rachel Kerstetter at Sonnhalter readily points out, the jobs are out there. “We’re a full-service marketing agency with a particular set of clients we describe as Business to Tradesmen. What we’ve been seeing among industrial manufacturers and the people who make building supplies is that they are really having trouble attracting skilled workers.”

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Hold those thoughts while you look at the other end of the spectrum, the “silver tsunami” that has been threatening industries since it first became evident in 2006. Like the problem of jobs going lacking and young men unemployed for lack of job skills (according to The Economist,teenage boys in rich countries are 50% more likely than girls to flunk all three high school basics of mathematics, reading, and science), the wave of retiring baby boomers is leaving additional workforce gaps. Adding insult to injury is the so-called millennial generation, the largest and most diverse segment of the US population, whose potential has been steered away from the skilled trades into four years of college, targeting higher paying jobs, which in the recent economic climate have been slow to materialize.

“I’m part of the millennial generation,” says Kerstetter, “and I can tell you that it’s not well representative in the trades, especially construction, manufacturing, plumbing, and electrical. Part of this is because we’re been guided along a path by our teachers and parents that dictates you go to high school, then to college for a four-year degree that leads to a job. It’s a path that isn’t trade friendly.”

Asked if this guidance has done a disservice to her generation, agreed Kerstetter. “Many of my peers have had trouble putting their degrees to work. I’m counted as one of the lucky ones who was able to find a full-time position in my field fairly quickly.”

Both minimally and overly educated candidates are looking for jobs, industries are looking for skilled workers and are having difficulty finding them, and a wave of older workers are retiring. Surely, there must be synergy in this triad of developments. And surely some shirked responsibilities and missed opportunities.

One could suggest that the skilled trades, construction among them, and the companies that serve them, have been less than enterprising in reaching out to candidates who might fill holes in their workforce, not only offering information about what’s available, but also how they can prepare themselves. Partnerships between the construction industry, trade and technical schools, and community colleges aren’t novel, and over the years we’ve written about construction equipment manufacturers who have partnered on everything from equipment to advice on curriculum for operators to mechanics. What is often lacking in these programs, however, is what that workforce report suggests: help adapting to new job market demands, and knowledge about potential opportunities.

What we’re talking about here is the opportunity to get the feel of a job that both demonstrates to individuals who enter these programs how they can put the skills they’ve developing to work and, most importantly, that there are opportunities out there and where they might find them. Internships and apprenticeships are critical to this effort, supplying the incentive and vision that many young men who aren’t destined for a four-year degree often don’t have available to them, lost as they can be in the rush of fellow students getting off to college.

The construction program at Cuyahoga Community College is one of the largest of its kind, with more than 3,500 students learning quality assurance, drawing, project management, scheduling, problem-solving, and communication skills. In the process, they will also receive 8,000 hours of on-the-job training. More than half of these students need to work while they attend classes, and many are adult learners who are raising families. Approximately 58% are the first generation in their families to attend college, and while many have some of the financial resources needed to reach their educational goals, they need help with the rest. Last year, the scholarship program that Sonnhalter donated its $2,000 to awarded scholarships to more than 1,900 students, providing assistance with tuition, fees, books, and miscellaneous educational expenses. Talk about good PR. First step accomplished.

Many of the companies that supply the construction industry with products and services have become expert at providing training such as weeklong workshops and regional product-related seminars, but these are limited to customers or potential customers and can often be purposed as much for marketing as training. The experience and expertise is there, however, and could be shared with community colleges and tech and trade schools. As a service to its clients and the skilled trades in general, Sonnhalter has developed a US Trade and Tech School Data Base, which includes a state-by-state inventory. People who want to partner with schools or connect with graduates or find a program to support can use it to identify programs near them and whom to contact.

A 2014 report by the Council of Economic Advisers describes the millennial generation as having been shaped by technology and invested heavily in human capital (its own), an investment that has left a large chunk with substantial debt and limited opportunities to discharge it. All factors that would seem to make members of this generation prime targets for well-designed and well-timed information programs on opportunities in the skilled trades. Opportunities like Caterpillar’s Youth Apprenticeship

Program, which reaches down to high school students and funnels them into college classes and paid internships in Caterpillar’s Stanford, NC, plant (see the March/April 2015 issue of Grading & Excavation Contractor).

Students take college credit courses while they’re still in high school, and work for pay up to 32 hours a week during their high school summer vacation. Candidates who complete the two-year program earn a welding certificate from the college, another one from the North Carolina Department of Labor and will have accumulated 80 hours in CAT’s Accelerated Training Program, applicable to an adult apprenticeship if they chose to go to work for Caterpillar. Step two accomplished. And yes, these programs require an investment in money and planning, but they can be a win-win for everyone involved.

And the silver tsunami? Obviously there’s potential in that one-fifth of American males who don’t have jobs who, with the right kind of training and experience, could step in the shoes of employees off to retirement in Florida—or at minimum, begin the journey that eventually might take them there, this while helping to retain valuable knowledge and experience in-house. “The most successful companies,” says Kerstetter, “are the ones who are taking the wealth of older generation employees getting ready to retire and connecting with the younger generation.” But connect they must, to help the younger generation recognize that they have value and can use it to earn a living.

Kerstetter says the $2,000 Sonnhalter donated to Cuyahoga Community College’s Construction Program Scholarship fund is a first step in addressing deficits in the trade workforce, but it won’t be its last. “I know for a fact that the jobs in construction and other industrial trades are out there, and the younger generation isn’t being told they’re available.”

The brawn-based jobs aren’t coming back, and blue collar jobs now require more skill. The Economist report included experiments that aim to make school more meaningful for boys, stimulating them in ways they can relate to, offering more recess time to blow off steam, providing books that feature sports stars and dragons and gizmos to fiddle with, and opening school doors to more male teachers who can provide role models in the early grades.

“A one-time scholarship donation is not it for us,” says Kerstetter. “We want to continue to help in this niche where we do business.” It would be productive if more companies in the construction industry thought the same way, breaking out of the self-restricting paradigm that keeps them from reaching out to the one-fifth of American males without a job—who for their part, will have to take a similar leap of faith.