By KRISTIA POSTEMA
Capital News Service
LANSING — In the next 15 years, 48% of skilled workers in Michigan will retire, and companies are already struggling to fill those openings, according to Norm Brady, the president of the Associated Builders and Contractors Western Michigan chapter.
“The No. 1 topic that we hear from our members is that they’re having a hard time finding the help they need,” Brady said.
Brady said the problem is a result of fewer young people coming into the job market.
“In 2008 there were 127,000 high school graduates in the state. That number has declined every year since then,” he said. “This year we’re going to have just under 100,000 graduates.”
Despite declining numbers of high school graduates, Brady says a higher percentage are going into trades such as construction and manufacturing.
“I sense that there is a realization today that folks are questioning whether they want to take on $50,000 or $100,000 of debt to obtain a college degree,” he said. “People are starting to question whether there’s fair value in taking on that type of debt before they even get started in their career.”
According to Brady, Associated Builders and Contractors provides those who skilled trades with the opportunity to work and train simultaneously.
“We show students another path that doesn’t put them in debt and gives them a career that utilizes their hands and their minds and their creativity,” Brady said.
According to Brady the association’s “earn while you learn” model means that applicants are hired by a contractor and work during the day, then attend an employer-funded training school in the evening.
“They work 40 hours a week so they’re getting a paycheck and improving their skills by attending classes,” he said. “As those skills improve and they have time in service, their pay will increase and generally in four years they will attain journeyman status.”
According to John Nasarzewski, the director of career and technical education at the Downriver Career Technical Consortium in Flat Rock, careers in the trades are financially beneficial for many graduates, especially those who participate in one of the consortium’s multiple dual enrollment programs.
“These students come out of high school with a year of college already done towards their associate’s (degree) or towards their journeyman’s card,” Nasarzewski said. “These kids are getting signing bonuses of $5,000 and getting all their college paid for at 18 years old.”
According to Nasarzewski, a strong skilled workforce is essential for keeping business and jobs in the state. He said that if the labor force cannot meet the demand for employees, employers will leave.
“We have this unique business opportunity to restructure ourselves to get these skilled trade positions filled,” Nasarzewski said. “These jobs pay too well, we don’t want to lose them.”
Nasarzewski said that outreach programs are essential to growing the skilled workforce.
“To adjust the mindset towards the trades, we piloted a program where our seniors would do workshops in elementary schools, and it was a success,” Nasarzewski said. “We would do everything from auto mechanics and business to culinary arts or dental occupations. The kids loved it.”
According to Cheryl Sanford, the CEO of the Michigan Workforce Development Institute, apprenticeships provide many opportunities and benefits, but they aren’t talked about enough.
“We’re trying to help frame it as another four-year degree because an apprenticeship school is going to invest $60,000 to $70,000 training a journey worker over a four-year period,” she said. “Students come out debt-free.”
Sanford said efforts to grow the skilled workforce should focus on increasing diversity in programs as well.
The institute’s Access For All Apprenticeship Readiness Training Program, based in Detroit, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, aims to bring more minorities, women, youth and veterans into the building trades, Sanford said.
“We see a need, not only for a pipeline of talent going into the trades, but also for more diversity,” she said. “It’s a matter of people seeing someone who looks like them and lives in their city doing something that they never thought was possible. That’s what motivates them.”
Sanford said the program helps underprivileged populations who want to work in the trades but don’t know where to start. The program career training and math and communication skills helps eliminate barriers, such as transportation, that prevent them from succeeding.
“We do a work experience project for each class where they get to spend a few days working on a community-based project with people from the building trades. They get a feel for what it’s like to work with different tools and what it’s like to be part of a construction team,” she said.
According to Sanford, people who complete the program often pursue apprenticeships.
“Our entry-level wage for apprentices right now is $17.46 per hour, but they receive full benefits and they have great pension plans working in the trades,” Sanford said.
According to Brady, the Associated Builders and Contractors is creating opportunities for young people.
For example, its Midland chapter formed the Greater Michigan Construction Academy with about 200 high school students who come to the center weekly and take classes in the trades.
The association also has a training center in Madison Heights and Brady said another training center being built in West Michigan is scheduled to open in January.
Sanford said the Access For All program is expanding. The institute recently received support from the state to develop similar programs in Jackson, Saginaw, Grand Rapids and Muskegon.
According to Brady, part of his job is making sure students see what careers in construction offer.
“The real story of construction is a story of good pay, benefits, a living wage, working as part of a team and creating buildings that are part of the community in which we live,” he said.
And Nasarzewski said he wants to make sure people see the value of skilled workers and careers in the trades.
“I have 19-year-old kids hanging out in Germany on full per diem as part of their training,” he said. “There’s some great super-smart kids who just don’t know what the trades can offer them, and we want to expose them to opportunities like this.”