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The Growing Options and Opportunities in Skilled Trades

The current lack of skilled trades workers in the U.S. is no secret, and contributors to the shortage include this country’s last recession and baby boomer retirements. Accordin…

The current lack of skilled trades workers in the U.S. is no secret, and contributors to the shortage include this country’s last recession and baby boomer retirements. According to data compiled by the Technical Careers Division of Lansing Community College (LCC) and partners at the Lansing Board of Water & Light, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and AFL-CIO Local Union 352, approximately 2.7 million trades jobs by 2025 will be needed to offset the retirements of baby boomers; 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be needed due to retirement and expansion. About 2 million of those jobs are expected to go unfilled. 

Sherrie L. Vossler, adjunct associate professor of electrical technology at LCC, teaches classes in electrical and electronics technologies. Vossler’s career in skilled trades began when she was hired at the Lansing Board of Water & Light’s Eckert Station in 1986 in power plant operations. She progressed through the operator progression system and was a control operator for six years. In 1995, Vossler began her electrician apprenticeship. She completed it in 1999, becoming the first woman electrician at the Board of Water & Light, which currently employs workers in 16 apprenticeship trades. She earned a second journey card in instrument and control in 2005. She said her passion for skilled trades is represented by being a journey card holder in two skilled trades and is one of the reasons she is a proponent for them. She did not speak to Greater Lansing Business Monthly as a representative of LCC.

“It’s important that kids and their parents know about the skilled trades programs available,” Vossler said. “And these aren’t the kinds of jobs that get outsourced the way other jobs can. Not only that, but workers in skilled trades have at least one key advantage over their white-collar counterparts: The nature of these jobs and their requirements are clearly defined, so the ability to pick up and move to new work can be an attractive feature when job markets are tight otherwise.”  

Vossler said that while parents are still likely to dream of their children going white collar over blue, kids are beginning to see things differently, motivated by shorter stretches in the classroom and the ability to work soon after completing training – sometimes even the next day. And surprisingly, starting pay can be quite high, often around $45,000.

There is still a lot of thinking out there, mainly from parents, that a four-year degree is the best route a kid can take. That’s true in many cases, but a two-year foundation can also be a means to a four-year degree. That is especially important to avoid kids earning degrees in fields they’re no longer passionate about by the time they graduate. 

“LCC partners with several Michigan universities to offer 3+1, a program where students complete most of their required classes at LCC, then finish their fourth year through one of the partner universities,” Vossler explained. “Students can earn four-year degrees in business administration, elementary education, allied health and many other degree programs via 3+1, and more easily switch paths if needed because those first three years are spent getting basics out of the way and learning about themselves. But there are several transfer possibilities from LCC to four-year colleges in addition to the 3+1 possibilities.” 

Vossler added that many apprenticeships offer tuition benefits that relieve students from paying for tuition and books while obtaining education with on-the-job training. That means a school-to-work program for many students.

Stigma has hung over trades jobs for a long time and is one reason some parents fight to keep their kids away from them. One of the chief culprits is Hollywood. Films like “The Cable Guy” depict trades workers as lazy and sarcastic. Other stereotypes include being unreliable, dumb, low on money and careless. That stigma is lifting, and the fact remains that trades jobs – encompassing everything from welding to information technology to dental hygiene – are essential to everybody’s well-being. 

In the January 2017 New York Times article “Wanted: Factory Workers, Degree Required,” Eric Spiegel, retired president and chief executive at Siemens USA, said, “In our factories, there’s a computer about every 20 or 30 feet. People on the plant floor need to be much more skilled than they were in the past. There are no jobs for high school graduates at Siemens today.” 

The statement highlights another reason for programs like 3+1. 

LCC is especially proud of its aviation technology program, which can be completed in 24 months or less with graduates earning three certificates. Students who add five extra courses during or following training can earn two associate degrees. Median wages for aviation mechanics and service technicians is more than $60,000 per year, according to onetonline.org. The program also offers job placement assistance. 

Cindie Alwood, executive director of the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing, partners with Carol Cool of Michigan State University and Tori Menold of Granger Construction to offer a new program to women using the center’s services. It’s called Women in Skilled Trades, or WIST. Leisa Williams-Swedburg, also from MSU, plays a key role in the planning and presenting of materials.

“WIST fits our mission of helping women realize their potential,” said Alwood. “WIST’s goals include offering as many women as possible the opportunity to earn more than a living wage and have medical and retirement benefits. It is a 13-week program covering all the prerequisites for beginning an apprenticeship program with an employer or union. Students are provided tools and equipment needed to complete the coursework, and any woman desiring to learn a skilled trade, who successfully completes an interview, is eligible.”

The Women’s Center also helps women eliminate barriers to employment such as lack of transportation or child care. 

Cool, the WIST partner from MSU, has worked in the construction industry for 30 years. She oversees construction projects on campus to ensure adherence to MSU standards, quality control and budget maintenance. She said the state of skilled trades in the country has been a topic at national conferences she has attended for the past three years.

“They always seemed to be asking what we, as owners of construction, can do to help increase the number of people in skilled trades because the shortage is only going to get worse,” said Cool. “On campus I have experienced the shortage as price increases, contractors not having the manpower they need to complete work done on time and, frankly, quality diminishing with less-experienced workers.”

Cool said that when Menold suggested an apprenticeship readiness program for women, she saw it as an opportunity to not only help women but the construction industry.

“The industry has always made skilled trades unattractive to women. That and a lack of awareness of the opportunity kept the participation of women in skilled trades to less than 3 percent for years. With the supply-and-demand balance where it is today, the opportunity has never been greater for women to enter and succeed in the world of skilled trades,” Cool said. “WIST is a way to help women overcome their fear, expose them to the many opportunities available and help them succeed in a great career as a skilled trades person.”

Cool went to Boston to learn the appropriate curriculum so that all WIST training complies with union and employer requirements. 

“That is the one thing that sets us apart from other skilled trades programs: Our students are work-ready when they graduate after 13 weeks,” Alwood said. “They have already completed all of the prerequisites required to begin an apprenticeship. They can, literally graduate on Saturday and start working as an apprentice on Monday. It’s a wonderful thing.”


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