By STEPHEN OLSCHANSK
Capital News Service
LANSING — In Rep. Ben Frederick’s rural district west of Flint, constituents have learned to schedule construction projects a year in advance.
The reason? The demand for construction workers outweighs the supply.
And it’s due to a shortage of skilled workers such as electricians, welders, nurse technicians and carpenters, state officials say. The pinch isn’t felt only in rural areas.
“It’s a problem everywhere,” said Frederick, R-Owosso.
Officials have found a slew of reasons for the talent or skills gap.
“We did have a movement in our education system toward simply pursuing two-year, four-year college degrees over the last 20 years,” Frederick said. “A number of our trade-based programs in public education weakened or were eliminated in that time. And there’s a general perception problem with trades as dirty or dead-end jobs that needs to be tackled head-on.”
Frederick recently introduced legislation to allow schools to hire licensed career-technical professionals as teachers and to expand career technical education exploration in K-12 schools.
The bills came from the recommendations of the Career Pathways Alliance, a group of teachers, business and union leaders formed by Gov. Rick Snyder in June.
Much of the alliance’s focus looks to bring technical education skills to students earlier.
That includes ideas like allowing for learning how geometry works in carpentry or computer science as a foreign language.
The group advocates for ridding the stigma placed on skilled trade careers by allowing earlier education in them and to raise understanding of careers that don’t involve college.
“One of the pieces of legislation will allow us to do more outreach to families who are interested in learning more about skilled trades programs,” Delaney McKinley, senior director of government affairs and membership for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said. “We know one of the ways to changing those misconceptions is career discovery.”
The state requires teachers to hold degrees in education. This legislation would waive that requirement for those teaching career technical classes and replace it with a requirement for a high school diploma or GED and a license in their trade field.
“If you have a licensed professional who’s got a credential in their trade or a certain equivalency, an apprenticeship experience, I don’t see the added value of that person having a bachelor’s degree,” Frederick said. “And that’s simply a barrier that’s being placed in front of someone who may want to share their skills with students.”
Frederick said there have been problems with getting trade professionals to agree to teach because of the need for an education certification.
But gutting that requirement is opposed by the Michigan Education Association.
“Students deserve to have well-prepared educators in their classrooms whether they are in college prep or career tech programs,” said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the union. “And eliminating requirements for college degrees, passage of basic skills about how to do the art, craft and science of teaching doesn’t serve students well.”
The worry stems not from knowledge of the trade professional but in how they would go about teaching and how they would go about handling a classroom environment.
“We need to make sure that these folks have the basics of how to reach and teach a classroom full of students, that they understand the requirements,” Pratt said. “Does somebody coming in off the street with a high school diploma and a mechanics’ license understand they’re a mandatory reporter for child abuse?”
Pratt said he wants professionals to have a certification process where they learn things such as mandatory reporting of suspicions of child abuse to Child Protective Services.
“We’d love to have a conversation and figure out how to craft a system that makes sense for somebody who is not going to go back and get a traditional four-year degree and a masters degree and things like that because it may not make sense,” Pratt said.
McKinley said teachers are a barrier to creating strong career technical programs because teachers are not often taught skilled trades. Therefore, the Michigan Manufacturers Association supports getting certified trade professionals into schools.
“Getting people who know how to teach welding or know how to run a CNC machine, they’re just not out there,” McKinley said. “Or, they’re out there, they’re working in the manufacturing field.”
Pratt said education advocates are also worried about retention of career technical teachers because retaining college prep teachers is already hard.
“The downward slope in terms of salaries for school employees matters in terms of recruiting and retaining educators to the profession period,” Pratt said. “Now you take a look at that specifically through a (career technical education) lens, if you can make $100 an hour as a plumber or an auto mechanic, are you really going to come and teach shop for half that?”
Data provided by McKinley reported the average manufacturing worker in the United States earned slightly more than $81,000 annually, which includes benefits and pay. Data also showed the manufacturing worker earned almost $26 per hour.
There is more agreement on other facets of the bills, such as starting K-12 students to think about careers earlier and to provide them with more trade exploration opportunities.
Frederick said, “The idea would be to not have it be narrowly tailored toward career technical or trades but simply integrating within the education experience kind of the practical connection on the skills that the student is learning and how that ties into any type of professional career they wish to pursue.”
As of the 2015-16 school year, almost 108,000 students were enrolled in career technical education programs in Michigan schools. During the 2007-08 school year, almost 124,000 students were enrolled in career technical education programs.
The Career Pathways Alliance, which is housed under Michigan’s Department of Talent and Economic Development, estimates that 500,000 jobs will be available in professional trades by 2024 with15,000 jobs added to the fields each year.
Pratt said schools have begun implementing similar measures already.
“There’s positives in this package that are going to do good things for schools,” he said. “But we can’t just ignore the glaring negatives in a bill that frankly puts the quality of education of students could be getting at risk.”