Skilled worker shortage targeted

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MONTGOMERY | Mike Rowe, host of the television show “Dirty Jobs,” talks about the problem in a promotional commercial for “Go Build Alabama.”

“A third of Alabama’s skilled tradesmen are over 50, and they are retiring fast,” Rowe says in the commercial. “Yet who’s replacing them? No one.”

State economic and workforce development officials became aware of a growing shortage of skilled workers about three years ago, which led them to private and public efforts to promote skilled trades and highly technical training as early as middle school.

“We took our eye off the ball in the last 20 years and focused on everybody getting a bachelor’s degree,” said Lew Drummond, director of workforce development at Shelton State Community College.

Skilled trades and technical jobs that can earn $60,000 a year or more with benefits include welding, plumbing, industrial maintenance, precision machining and electrical engineering. There are opportunities in industries such as biotech, computers, aviation and shipbuilding.

Community colleges are responding to the shortfall. Shelton State Community College has a mechatronics program to train for jobs at the Mercedes-Benz plants in Vance. The program is a combination of classroom and hands-on training, with up to 18 more months of training onsite at Mercedes.

“If you complete the program at Shelton and complete successfully the 18-months program, they’re going to offer positions at Mercedes anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000,” Drummond said. The first 40 students started their Mercedes training in January.

The state is trying to stave off the shortfall with more technical courses and reaching out to junior high and high school students and their parents.

Besides the “Go Build Alabama” campaign for the building trades industry, the JobKeeper Alliance, a new cooperation between organized labor and manufacturing interests, has been created to emphasize skilled trades and technical training, and career tech training beginning in the eighth grade.

George Clark, president of Manufacture Alabama, is a JobKeeper Alliance board member.

“In any particular industry sector you want to go, there’s 40 percent to 50 percent of our workforce can and probably will retire soon,” Clark said. “We need to be aware we have a crisis on our hands.”

Clark said parents and school guidance counselors need to be educated so they can advise students of an alternate path to college that may lie in skilled trades and manufacturing jobs.

Stewart Burkhalter, retired president of the Alabama AFL-CIO, started JobKeepers to build grassroots support within the education, manufacturing, and labor communities.

“Everybody is not college material,” Burkhalter said. “We’re trying to educate students and parents to the fact that there is a good living out there for those who don’t go to college, to let parents and students know you can make $100,000 with benefits in the trades.”

JobKeeper executive director Patrick Cagle said JobKeeper partners with the Alabama Department of Education’s Career and Technical Education section to better connect with manufacturing employers and organizations representing skilled workers.

Drummond said efforts are needed to change people’s minds about technical jobs.

“A number of moms and dads and other relatives have a particular view of technical fields and some manufacturing fields,” he said.

The message may be getting heard. Technical skills training attendance in the two-year college system is up from 47,721 in 2006-07 to 77,916 in 2010-11.

Shelton State Community College President Mark Heinrich said the growing retirement gap and industry are driving the effort.

“I think we have had this idea in this country that everybody needs to go in one direction, college, but the fact of the matter is it doesn’t appear to be where the jobs are,” Heinrich said. “I think the educational institutions have had to catch up.”
By Dana Beyerle
Montgomery Bureau Chief
Published: Monday, June 11, 2012