America’s self-inflicted skilled trades crisis


Deer In Headlines

By Gery L. Deer



According to Forbes magazine, America’s skilled workforce is aging at an alarming rate and there is no one coming up the ranks to replace them. Here are their national figures from March 2013, and the numbers are getting worse. “in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and New Hampshire, more than 60 percent of the skilled-trades labor force is 45 or older. Other Northeastern states such as Delaware, Maine and New York also have aging skilled-trades workforces, as do Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.”

You may have heard similar stories in the more recent news about one of America’s most self-inflicted of crises – the skilled labor shortage. As the labor force ages, qualified workers are continually needed to replace them, but they just aren’t there.

Some will argue that the need for a skilled workforce has diminished, because of the loss of major manufacturing and production jobs over the last three decades. Others will say that the reduced skilled labor force is the result of an American economic shift from manufacturing to service and high-tech. While there is some level of truth to both of those viewpoints, I believe our educational system is as much to blame as anything else.

For years, wave after wave of graduating high schoolers are steered only towards a four-year college degree program or comparable, transferrable two-year school. There is, even in today’s ridiculously politically correct environment, a serious prejudice in academia towards those who have no interest or aptitude for the ivy walls and lecture halls of the white-tower world. This is a huge generalization, I grant, but to many of those in that world, you either sit in their class rooms as students or you clean them as janitors – and there is no in between.

My father taught senior agricultural mechanics at the county vocational school from 1970 through the mid-1980s. At the peak of his time there, his students had a job placement rate of more than 97-percent and many of them found lifetime careers with those employers. His job was to educate his students to be workforce ready, professionally competent and with hands-on experience.

When I was coming up through school, the only students directed towards that kind of skilled trade school fell into one of two categories. Either they are of those few who have the aptitude or personal desire for some skilled work already or whom the school administrators have determined aren’t “cut out” for college. This is still true today.

In my experience, modern vocational training has fallen dramatically behind the days when my father trained professional trades people for enduring, high-paying professions. Vocational schools have been rebranded as, “career centers,” desperately trying to shed the image of a place where students went who couldn’t handle classroom book learning. An image that was always unwarranted and complete nonsense.

While a few still exist in a mere skeletal form of their predecessors, agricultural and skilled mechanical trades have nearly disappeared from many public educational facilities, overshadowed by programs like culinary arts, digital media, law enforcement, software applications and other more “technical” paths. Even those students who eventually land in one of these programs, have it beaten into their heads from an early age that the only way to make a career or future for yourself is to go to a four-year school. And now, our economy is paying the price.

Parents can help too. When you hear statements in the news like, “the unemployment rate is much higher without a college degree,” you tend to push the student in that direction. But what if your student, male or female, isn’t interested in an academic path or has an aptitude for something more, hands-on? What if they could eventually earn more money and have more job security than their college-graduated peers? Wouldn’t that be worth encouraging? Plus, a trades education can cost thousands less a year.

Skilled trades such as construction, electrical and the like are part of the fastest growing and highest paying sector of our economy and our educational institutions should be working to give students a path to success in those areas. Our future depends on skilled labor and professional tradespeople, not more video game programmers.

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Deer In Headlines

By Gery L. Deer

Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. More at www.deerinheadlines.com.

Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. More at www.deerinheadlines.com.