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New Coalition Aims to Close the Skilled Trades Gap

By Roline Pascal Assistant Editor of the Welding Journal

One of the hardest segments of the workforce for employers to find skilled talent has been the skilled trades—the welders, electricians, machine tool operators, pipefitters, and other tradespeople who are essential in manufacturing and construction.

The American Welding Society (AWS) hosted 17 industry organizations for the first Skilled Trades Coalition meeting on Dec. 5, 2018. Pictured at AWS Headquarters in Miami, Fla., are (from left) Scott Lynch, ABMA; Ken Rigmaiden, IUPAT; Matt Miller, AWS; Scott Cargill, ASNT; Darrell L. Roberts, Helmets to Hardhats; Charlie Carter, AISC; Edward A. Abbott, Ironworkers International; John Ospina, GAWDA; Arnold Bereson, ASNT; Michael Harris, ITI; Raquel Tamez, SHPE; Matthew E. Croson, AGMA; Jeannine Kunz, Tooling U-SME; David W. Viola, IAPMO Group; Sheila LaMothe, CCAI; Edward S. Youdell, FMA International; Tom Underhill, SEAA; and Robert H. Chalker, NACE International.

But if these skilled trades workers are difficult to find now, in a few years, this will likely become a disconcerting situation. It is estimated that two million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled by 2025. Thus, the question is: What can we do to solve this problem?

On Dec.5, 2018, 17 industry organization leaders gathered at the American Welding Society (AWS) World Headquarters in Miami, Fla., for the first meeting of the Skilled Trades Coalition (STC), which was founded as a response to the rising shortage in skilled trades workers.

“Over the last several years of my career, I have been hearing a common theme from multiple industries, which is the growing deficit in access to qualified skilled workers,” said AWS Executive Director and CEO Matt Miller. “We began reaching out to our counterparts at other technical associations and discovered that the challenge we’re having with attracting workers to welding is mirrored in many other trades, so we put together a charter to see if we could engage other groups to elevate the conversation around the skilled trades. Our original goal was to bring together five organizations, but the interest was so large that we quickly found we had 17 willing partners.”

The mission of the STC is to bring together a group of thought leaders who are shaping the future of work in their respective trade disciplines to explore awareness, recruitment, training and retention of skilled trades workers to close the skilled trades gap.

Coalition participants had the opportunity to interact, share information and gain consensus on key topics, detail best practices and identify common challenges, brainstorm, collaborate on awareness of the trades employment gap and combine resources to accelerate problem solving.

The Coalition developed several insightful panel-based sessions to explore the questions and answers to the skills gap. Central in the discussion was development of strategies to draw more workers to skilled trades, dispel myths and influence public perceptions.

A panel of speakers — (from left) Gardner Carrick, Darrell L. Roberts (also a STC partner), and Pim Bexkens — shared their insights into opportunities and challenges facing the skilled trades and also answered questions from executives.

Attracting Workforce Talent

Among the executive partners, a panel was brought in to share insights into opportunities and challenges facing the skilled trades in the areas of attracting talent and managing common misconceptions.

The panel included Gardner Carrick, vice president of strategic initiatives, The Manufacturing Institute; Darrell L. Roberts, executive director for Helmets to Hardhats, Center for Military Recruitment, Assessment and Veterans Employment; and Pim Bexkens, software engineer and team leader for WorldSkills Netherlands.

Data from the panel demonstrated that while employment and job openings in the trades are growing, the industry cannot meet the supply and demand of skilled workers. Thus, there is an urgency to attract young people to the skilled trades workforce as they are key to closing the gap.

The pending retirement of baby boomers, strength of the economy, and gap between the skills that employers need and available workers put other issues to the forefront.

Negative connotations and stereotypes of trade workers have penetrated society and contributed to the problem by discouraging young people from pursuing careers in the trades. Most people have no idea of the importance of manufacturing and its contribution to the American economy, including manufacturing employees and executives.

“The changes that have been occurring in our pre-professional education system have contributed greatly to the skilled workforce shortage problem. Over the years, we have put a focus on the value of a college education while at the same time devalued the career opportunities of the skilled trades, discouraging people from entering these fields,” said Robert H. Chalker, CEO of NACE International.

Influencing Public Perceptions

Research has explored what today’s young people are looking for in their careers, how they make career choices, and how well today’s educational programs support careers in manufacturing. It touches on the fact that high schools in the United States have shifted their focus to preparing students for four-year colleges rather than vocational schools. Most of the agricultural arts programs that were so popular 50 years ago have been removed from high schools, and the educational system exacerbates the negative perception of manufacturing.

“The shift in the national education system 30–40 years ago away from supporting vocational programming as part of the curriculum and a big push to have students follow a ‘college prep’ curriculum was a defining moment in creating the skilled trades workforce shortage,” said Edward S. Youdell, president and CEO, FMA International. “This sea change in approach funneled many people away from careers in either manufacturing or skilled trades, where great value is placed on the ability to work with both one’s hands and mind.”

Half of high-school graduates who attend college drop out. However, the educational system has failed to engage these students and help them enter alternative postsecondary programs. Those who do graduate may not find employment requiring a four-year degree. Meanwhile, many well-paid and rapidly increasing manufacturing jobs remain unfilled.

“This push towards college or bust shifted the culture’s perception of our great career alternatives into meaning something less than the white-collar variety,” said Youdell. “We should also stop referring to our employees as workers or laborers. Who ever wanted to grow up to be a worker? Change the paradigm; we can do better.”

The Coalition strives to eradicate public’s perception and restore the image of essential skilled personnel.

A few key takeaways from the meeting as they relate to improving the skilled trades perception on the national and local levels and attracting skilled trade workers include targeting women, minorities and young people (researching key influencers); investing in resources to craft a message and get it out to the public; investing in a central location for resources; building on and leveraging existing programs; and  engaging other organizations/groups who are also working in the same space.

Next Steps/Action Planning

Over the next decade, nearly three and a half million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed. This skilled workforce shortage is not new. The urgency of the problem was described as far back as the 1990s and has been well documented over the past 15 years.

“Certainly the skilled trades and manufacturers themselves bear some responsibility for this situation because, collectively, we lost control of the narrative and did not respond strongly enough about the value of our industries and career opportunities,” said Youdell.

As asked in the beginning, what can be done to solve this problem? Establishing partnerships with industry organizations, schools and the public. The STC has taken the first step.

As part of this nationwide effort, the partners have shared stories, data and ideas to inspire action. Collaboration is at the heart of the Coalition, and the participating partners demonstrate their enthusiasm to work together with all of their knowledge to bring the tools and information necessary to help the industry when skilled trades issues arise, being a strong voice for trades within industry to provide assistance and solve problems.

“While the Coalition is made up of a diverse set of industry leaders and associations, our ability to find common ground for a shared issue will hopefully lead to a set of solutions that can be deployed to raise the visibility of the issue on a national scale,” said Youdell. “From there, communicating the solutions to our individual industry’s members, stakeholders, suppliers and original equipment manufacturers, and then having them adopt them into their operations, can hopefully alleviate the shortage of skilled professionals.”

Consensus has been sought for action moving forward. The 17 partners have started their focus in the areas of initiative, coalition governance, data mining, marketing campaigns, stakeholders and funding. Executive sponsors have volunteered to helm the projects, with assistance from one or two groups.

“Each of the organizations in the Coalition are doing something to promote the value of a profession in the skilled trades, but as individual groups, with limited resources, we can only accomplish so much. Together, combining our efforts and resources, we can amplify our impact. I see the most important role we can play is to reestablish the skilled trades as a long-term, secure career for young men and women in the formative years while they are making career decisions,” said Chalker.

The partners will be exploring initiatives at the upcoming teleconference this month. Subsequently, the American Institute for Steel Construction (AISC) will host the second in-person Skilled Trades Coalition meeting Sept. 5 and 6 in Chicago.

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