The job market is flooded with college graduates settling for minimum-wage work and laid-off workers whose former jobs no longer exist. While many industries are floundering, others are growing—and they’re starved for a workforce that’s seldom aware of the potential opportunities.
A college education is usually considered the best option for high school graduates who seek a stable career. But while most promising career paths require some form of post-secondary training, a four-year college degree is not always the right fit. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that just 20 percent of jobs in 2010 required a bachelor’s degree or higher—a number that’s not expected to change significantly over the next decade.
And yet a wealth of career opportunities exists that are frequently overlooked by job seekers. Despite today’s high unemployment rates, there is actually a scarcity of workers in the areas of specialized manufacturing, construction and the skilled trades. As these industries muscle through the workforce shortage, education has become the primary focus of a range of community efforts—at area high schools, at community colleges, and through union apprenticeship programs.
After falling out of favor toward the end of the last century, vocational and career/technical education is back. High school and college educators are working hand in hand with business and community leaders to boost interest in these fields, and a hands-on approach is the key to sparking that interest.
In Peoria’s District 150, vocational tech programs had been downsized and faded out entirely back in the nineties, says Chris Coplan, public relations director. But today, these courses are available to all district students at the Woodruff Career and Technical Center, which opened last year in the former Woodruff High School building.
The classes at Woodruff offer students practical, hands-on opportunities in an array of subjects. Courses in the construction trades teach the skills necessary for cabinet making, drywall installation and plumbing. Engineering and electrical classes cover alternative energy, architecture, manufacturing, robotics and residual wiring. Health science classes hone the expertise needed for dentistry, EMT training, nursing and sports medicine. And last year, there was so much interest in the cosmetology program that it could only take about 20 percent of the hundred or so students who signed up.
“I think we’ve made significant progress in encouraging students to find out what works for them,” Coplan says. “A big part of that comes from the program at Woodruff… We’ve also implemented an eighthgrade career exploration program that hits a lot of the vocational and even college programs.”
Students are finally being taught that an undergraduate education is not the only ticket to future success, he explains. “We’re trying to implement career/tech programs specifically at the high-school level— and even the middle-school level—so they have an idea… [that] if college isn’t right for them, there’s still something out there they can train for to find a good-paying job.”
In many ways, he says, career and technical courses offer an interactive learning environment that the average textbook-based class cannot match. Students in the autobody repair class, for example, get their hands dirty working on real vehicles; the final class project involved a full revamping of a 1973 Chevy Nova. Taking the next step on their exploratory paths, a number of students from the class have moved on to “real-world” internships this summer.
Not only do these types of courses hold students’ attention, the hands-on environment allows them to put the skills they’ve learned in the classroom to work. “They’re finding angles, they’re measuring… They’re using a lot of those math skills, and they still do textbook reading,” says Coplan.
And that elicits an enthusiastic response from the students. “For a lot of these vocational courses, we’ve had full enrollment,” he adds. “I think [they] are eager to get out and… get their hands on the work that’s offered through these programs.”
Recruitment in the Trades
When it comes to workforce scarcity, the building trades are feeling the squeeze, says Ginger Johnson, executive director of the Tri- County Construction Labor-Management Council (TRICON). She cites a 2009 study that “confirms what we already suspected—that we will experience a shortage of skilled, qualified workers very soon, largely due to an aging workforce,” she says. “But we also know that at some point our economy will turn around, and so we have to recruit individuals into our industry.”
And that begins with education and awareness. “For many years, we’ve done quite a bit in the K-12 arena,” says Johnson. “We have a wide variety of offerings to try to supplement what they do in the schools.” Area eighth-graders can visit hands-on construction exhibits from local contractors, while high school students can attend career fairs and events like the Women in Construction Day program, which demonstrates the rewards of a construction career to a demographic that might not have considered it before.
Juniors and seniors can also participate in work-based learning programs, including semester-long internships. In doing so, Johnson explains, they are preparing for a stable career with quality benefits and wages—and no college degree required. However, she is quick to add, those who do want to earn a college degree have that option as well.
“A lot of the apprenticeship programs are partnered with community colleges so that when you’re done, you have a significant number of community college hours and are close to—or even have—an associate’s degree.”
Another significant benefit of an apprenticeship is that the costs have already been covered by union members in the field. “They kick in so many cents per hour into a training fund, and that pays for those who are up and coming,” Johnson explains.
A Head-On Response
Newly minted and soon-to-be graduates aren’t the only ones seeking out trade and technical skills. The rough economy has brought in a wave of people who have lost their jobs or are looking to learn a new skill or improve a skillset, says Ellen George, dean of corporate and community education at Illinois Central College.
“They’re looking at what else is out there,” she explains. “We have started putting an emphasis on very intensive, shortterm training over the past few months. We did that specifically with hopes of getting these folks into the jobs that are in demand now.”
Area businesses are also in the mix, combating the workforce shortage with additional education. “Companies are coming to us to help train some of their current workforce,” says George. These same companies are also reaching out to the community at large, aiming to show there are available jobs that need to be filled.
Michael Sloan, ICC dean of agricultural and industrial technologies, notes that the common perception that the skilled trades weren’t hiring because of the recession was mistaken. “We’ve been tracking [these] patterns for a while,” he says, “and we’ve noticed that even during the economic downturn, they still need people.”
The Manufacturing Path
Several years ago, the Specialized Manufacturing Strategy Group—a program of the Economic Development Council comprised of local leaders in the manufacturing industry—identified the workforce shortage as its foremost concern, explains Sloan. “So we started to develop some strategies to interest high school students, as well as adults, in manufacturing careers.”
They soon determined that people had significant misperceptions about modern manufacturing that made the field less attractive to them. Some associated the industry with a dirty, dusty image from the Industrial Revolution, an obsolete notion that belies today’s sophisticated, high-tech machine shops. Others believed that manufacturing was dying—“that there’s no future in it.”
“This is a major concern,” explains Sloan, “not only for manufacturers trying to build a workforce, but also for the State of Illinois.” Because if people believe there’s no future in manufacturing, there is little hope of maintaining a strong manufacturing base in the state, much less growing it. And the industry is growing.
The Institute for Supply Management reports that U.S. manufacturing activity has steadily increased for the last three years. Since the start of 2010, the U.S. has added more net manufacturing jobs than the rest of the G7 nations combined. Further, with the rising cost of doing business in China, manufacturing jobs are returning to the U.S., which could lead to an additional two to three million jobs by the end of the decade, according to a report from the Boston Consulting Group.
Roadmap to Employment
To meet its workforce needs, the Specialized Manufacturing Group offers a plan of attack similar to many area businesses: focus on the students. “[It] has a two-pronged strategy,” says Sloan. “One is the idea that every high school… should have a manufacturer who is their partner, [who] will come into the school and talk to students about manufacturing careers, opportunities for job shadowing and co-ops.”
The second component of the strategy centers on the Discover Manufacturing Career Expo, now in its fourth year, which is held at the Peoria Civic Center. It’s important to note that this is not just a job fair, but a career fair, says Sloan. Participating companies are not looking simply to fill positions, but to engage students—about 750 or so from 20 area high schools—in conversation about career opportunities in their field. “We also try to reach out to some of the underrepresented populations… so they understand there are plenty of opportunities here for everyone, whether you’re interested in machining, welding, accounting or safety.”
In April, the East Peoria Chamber of Commerce organized a similar event at East Peoria High School. It was the first of its kind, and according to the Chamber’s executive director, Rick Swan, it won’t be the last. Manufacturing in the USA Career Day featured participation from a variety of companies, from Oberlander Electric and River City Construction to Caterpillar Inc., and stations that showcased specific skills like welding, pipe-fitting and painting. “Every student… could actually talk to the people who work in these fields every day,” Swan explains, “the people who live it.”
All students received materials outlining key aspects of these potential careers, including salary and benefit information. But Swan points to other factors that made an impact on the students: the critical nature of math and science, and the importance of attendance and staying drug-free. “It was a roadmap to getting employed.”
The response was so positive that the Chamber has already begun planning for next year. “We’ve kept a continuing dialogue with the businesses, and they want to do it again,” says Swan. “We need to train the youth, because they’re the future. If businesses are going to survive in this area, we need to give them a good workforce.”
Driving Future Growth
If this smorgasbord of community efforts proves anything, it’s that collaborative solutions to the problem of workforce scarcity are actively being sought. “The companies and agencies in this area are not asleep at the switch,” says Sloan. “They really are aware of what’s going on.”
And because the path to a successful career does not always mean a traditional four-year college degree, the increased awareness of other options is critical. If the labor pool for these industries is to grow, today’s students must be shown that these career options are not only viable, but essential. ‘
“People only consider the jobs they know something about,” says Sloan. “They really have to have some assistance in moving beyond [what they don’t know]. That’s what the career and technical education programs do.” iBi