Trade schools offer positive option for students

By STEPHANIE HERNANDEZ McGAVIN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Patrick Lamb is the son of a welder and a nurse. When he graduated high school in 1976, there were three definitive lines of work for him to enter: university, military or trade.

He was only familiar with one line.

Lamb is now the principal at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District Career-Tech Center and is working with about 1,100 high school students to make sure they know all of their options.

Trade schools and technical programs across the state are revamping their image and attracting students to a modern kind of skilled labor.

“There’s a stigma out there that it’s still your dad and my dad’s traditional trade education and we’re always trying to break those barriers that these centers are so much more highly technical,” Lamb said.

The state’s growing economy, Gov. Rick Snyder’s continuous urge for skilled labor and booming trades like construction have students considering the trade option, Lamb said.

Michigan’s construction industry’s employment, at its peak in 2000, was 214,200 workers. Following the Great Recession, the industry lost 89,300 jobs, setting its employment at 124,900 in 2013.

But things are looking up. Kevin Koehler, the president of the Construction Association of Michigan, said 2014 added 7,000 more jobs. He estimated 2015’s numbers to be equal, if not better.

“What essentially has happened is that during the downturn a lot of people left the construction industry, left the state or simply changed jobs,” Koehler said. “Construction is booming once again with the advent of the new bridge and hockey rink. The automotive industry is flourishing again and investing more into their plants, so they’ll need construction workers.”

While new jobs are being created and interest in skilled trades is slowly increasing, there remains an important but hesitant group keeping young people out of these positions: parents.

A lot of parents have been “burned” by blue-collar industries like the automotive industry, Scott Mattson, the job training program manager at Grand Rapids Community College, said. After suffering Michigan’s economic downturn, manufacturing jobs are viewed with distrust. Parents continue to push their kids toward bachelor’s degrees, hoping that spending an immense amount of money on a four-year university will pay off with better jobs.

“You see a lot of students with a bachelor’s degree struggling to find work,” he said. “In a skilled trade, you start out making a solid wage and it’s steady work with an opportunity to grow. And there’s so much technology. There are not many ‘dirty’ jobs anymore. I think people’s minds are slowly changing as we get into the high schools.”

One of the largest ways that trade programs and industries have reached out to these younger students was the Career Quest Fair at the DeVos Place in Grand Rapids in April.

The fair was open to middle and high school students in Kent and surrounding counties and included representatives from manufacturing, construction, informational technology and healthcare.

“It was really interesting for me to be behind the scenes and see guys who are usually really strong competitors in the construction industry and yet they are coming together for this event,” said Mattson. “They weren’t necessarily recruiting for their company, they were just there to get students exposed to this industry.”

Technical trades are moving in a positive direction, but many students may not know that some of these trades go beyond simply being a welder or automotive technician, experts say.

Jeffrey Hardesty, a professor and the program coordinator of Welding Engineering Technology at Ferris State University, said Ferris offers both associate and bachelor’s degrees as a way for students to explore the academic side of welding.

Since the university does not typically train welders, it encourages the longtime professions of welding technicians and welding engineers — both of which require a higher degree of skill, additional education and an understanding of technology.

“Our associate degree is certainly targeted more for the academic side than some, because it’s a feeder to the bachelor’s degree,” said Hardesty. “Our associate degree and bachelor’s degree programs are both full. And we’re familiar with what [students] know and what level they’re at, as opposed to different associate programs that tend to serve their local manufacturing base. We get a more consistent group if they come through our program.”

No matter the trade, industries will continue to reach out to young adults, Koehler said. Michigan needs to rebuild a retiring workforce that could be in danger of an even worse labor shortage.

“We’re seeing a lot of organizations like ourselves develop programs to bring these young adults into skilled trade and alleviate the need,” said Koehler. “Our workforce in construction is aging and in the next 10 years, we’re going to have 50 to 60 percent of the workforce retiring.”