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To Fill the Skills Gap, Educate Young People About Careers in the Trades—and Then Train Them

By Kevin Ketels, Triune Specialty Trailers

Our country has a skills gap problem. It is predicted that by 2020, the U.S. will have 32 million unfilled positions in the trades. To fix this problem, to fill these jobs and to keep our economy rolling, manufacturers and other industries in need of these workers must encourage—via education–more young people to pursue careers in the skilled trades, and then facilitate the necessary skills training and education.

I recently had an opportunity to talk with Jennifer Emerick, Senior Project Manager for
The Christman Company. Christman Company, along with partner L.S. Brinker, is overseeing construction of the new Wayne State University Mike Ilitch School of Business. The 120,000-square-foot building will serve 3,000 students and is the first Wayne State facility built outside of the main Midtown campus. Jennifer oversees the project and manages the site including schedule, budget and logistics. This is her fourth construction project at Wayne State and Jennifer is enthusiastic about the construction industry outlook in Detroit: “Things are booming. It’s a highly energized environment and a rebirth for the city. There is a lot of good energy.”

Jennifer told me that for all the projects she manages, including this one, she sees a labor shortage across the board in the skilled trades. “There are not enough bodies to fill the open positions,” she told me. In her 20 years in the business, she has seen first-hand how the increasing numbers of Baby Boomer retirements are causing labor shortages in the skilled trades.

An Association of General Contractors (ACG) survey revealed that 72% of firms predict a shortfall of qualified workers. Thirty-two percent of billion-dollar manufacturers estimate that they will lose over $100 million over the next five years or so because of Baby Boomer retirements. It’s a trend that will continue yet can be stemmed with the creation of a new flow of skilled trade workers who are excited to not just work, but to develop a career and a good living. According to Jennifer, “We as an industry need to do a better job of letting people know what a career [in construction and the skilled trades] is like…we need to get the younger generation excited about building and creating something.”

As Jennifer confirmed from her experience, the construction industry is booming, especially in Detroit. Jennifer spoke of the energy and the long-term consistency of the trade. “Construction is not going to go away. There will always be a need to build new things and renovate older buildings,” she said. As for a career, she told me, “It’s a great career. It’s something to be excited about—a fast-paced industry that’s never boring.” So how can we spread the word—about construction, and about manufacturing and the skilled trades in general?

At Triune, we’re a big proponent of education and training for the skilled trades. We have built education trailers for welding, CNC programming and for STEM education. In addition to providing the necessary training, vehicles like this are used to get out into communities, to job fairs and community events, to educate the public about different career options.

At Triune, we’ve been a part of collaborations between local colleges and economic development agencies, such as in the development of the Fab Lab, a successful training and education vehicle used to provide hands-on training on CNC programming. CNC programming is an area in which the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts large growth , and many companies are desperate for skilled and trained employees. The Fab Lab trailer travels all over Northern Michigan to educate people about CNC programming and provide hands-on training. It’s been a huge success and graduates of the program are getting jobs right after getting their CNC programming certification.

Vehicles like the Fab Lab, that are outside of the “brick and mortar box,” are part of a new wave of education and training that brings the skills on the road and to the people. The MXLab, a Triune-built STEM education trailer, brings STEM education to more than 50,000 students per year in the state of Maryland. Introducing children and young people to new ideas that not only interest them, but can provide lasting employment. It can change the game for manufacturers and other industries that rely on skilled workers.

The Triune-built PSE&G welding training vehicle allowed PSE&G, a natural gas utility, to provide employee training at their various job sites so that workers did not have to travel and miss work in order to attend a training session. Hands-on training and education trailers are just one of the many ways that manufacturers and employers can not only train, but educate young people about the value of a career in the trades, and recruit new workers.

Collaborations between community colleges, government agencies, large employers in construction and manufacturing, as well as more outreach to students about the value of these careers are just some of the ways we can address the shortage of skilled trade workers. Manufacturers, educators, unions and agencies need to introduce young people to this career path, to see the potential, and get them trained and ready to enter the workforce. The future is bright for our industry if we can proactively educate and train the next generation of workers. As Jennifer told me, “It’s a good career — it’s something to be excited about.” I couldn’t agree more.