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Colleges, businesses partner on training in skilled trades


An electronics lab is part of the continuing education program in the San Diego Community College District (California). ​​

​Joe Snyder is enthusiastic about his apprenticeship program, which allows him to take free evening classes at Gateway Community and Technical College (GCTC) in Kentucky while working full-time in manufacturing.

Across the nation, however, fewer people have been seeking training in the skilled trades—despite the recent recession—due to the public’s misconception about the career potential of jobs in such areas as manufacturing, welding, plumbing, and construction.

The Trades in Focus Community College Initiative is a new awareness campaign through the American Association of Community Colleges and sponsored by W.W. Grainger Inc., a distributor of industrial products. The project aims to strengthen the nation’s skilled workforce by encouraging more people to consider the trades and forging connections among community colleges, potential students, employers, business and industry, and community leaders.

The idea is to spur more local partnerships like the one allowing Snyder to work in a four-year apprenticeship program as an electrical technician at a MAG machine tool facility while working toward an associate degree in manufacturing engineering technology at GCTC. 

On April 11 at the annual AACC convention, a panel of college presidents and industry representatives will address attracting more students to industrial skilled trades’ careers.

Snyder says his full-time job at MAG gives him an opportunity to work in various jobs at the company, which makes metal-cutting machines for assembling aerospace parts. His classes, at GCTC’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing, cover everything from industrial maintenance to how to use a micrometer.

“It’s definitely tiring going to school and working full time,” Snyder says. But he calls the program a great opportunity to get into a career that will enable him to support his family and offers a brighter future than his previous career in home remodeling.

Misperceptions about the trades

An outline of the Trades in Focus initiative describes a widening gap between the nation’s supply of skilled workers and job opportunities in the industrial trades. It warns that, on average, the skilled labor shortage will cost larger companies with more than a 1,000 employees about $11 million annually through 2015.

Many industries face an aging workforce with a growing number of employees set to retire. For example, it is estimated that one-third of all skilled plumbers will leave the workforce in the next few years, while demand for plumbers is expected to increase by 10 percent through 2016.

Meanwhile, many people looking for careers are not considering these positions. There’s a misconception that occupations in manufacturing, welding, plumbing, automotive and other skilled trades don’t require much training and have limited career potential, says Erin Ptacek, director of corporate brand and reputation for Grainger.

Today’s skilled trades careers require advanced problem-solving and technological skills. Many people are unaware of the long-term career potential these jobs offer.

As part of the Trades in Focus initiative, Grainger and AACC are working together to address that knowledge gap through an awareness campaign to “shine a light on these careers and the students who choose them,” Ptacek says.

A key part of the initiative is to develop tool kits to educate high school teachers and counselors, students, and parents about careers in the trades.

College-based center promotes welding careers

The Trades in Focus campaign builds on the Grainger Tools for Tomorrow scholarship program for community college students. Since 2006, Grainger has partnered with AACC to provide $2,000 scholarships to students enrolled in community colleges who are pursuing careers in the industrial trades, such as welding, plumbing, HVAC, electrical and construction.

Last year, the program expanded to focus on returning military veterans and now designates one-third of the scholarships to veterans. The skills they learned in the military are often easily transferable to the industrial trades, Ptacek says. In 2011, Grainger will offer a total of 200 scholarships through 100 community colleges across the country.

Demand for skilled workers

Gary Green, president of Forsyth Technical Community College (FTCC) in North Carolina, has seen enrollment in the skilled trades programs start to grow.

Employers will look to community colleges when the recession ends and they begin to hire again, says Green, who chairs the Trades in Focus Advisory Committee. Similarly, people who are unemployed or underemployed look to public two-year colleges to get the training and skills they will need for those jobs.

“Community colleges are the nexus around skill development,” Green says.

To ensure a steady supply of skilled workers to meet local workforce needs, FTCC is using the media and its counseling staff to encourage veterans and members of the National Guard, as well as recent high school graduates, unemployed and underemployed community members to take advantage of educational opportunities in the skilled trades.

FTCC is also partnering with businesses, such as Caterpillar, which is helping to train students to work in its new plant producing specialized equipment. In addition, the college is training students for work in the state’s $6 billion motor sports industry. Producing and operating racing cars for the NASCAR circuit calls for “high levels of skill and exacting specifications,” Green says.

Community college programs in the skilled trades are essential to shoring up local economies.

“There is always a risk that these jobs could be outsourced if we don’t produce the highly skilled workers needed to undertake that kind of manufacturing,” Green says.

San Diego is currently experiencing an unprecedented demand for training programs in the trades, says Lynne Neault, vice chancellor of the San Diego Community College District (SDCCD).

“Many of our programs are at capacity,” adds Lynne Ornelas, the district’s dean of workforce development. Some programs even have a one-year waiting list that includes many people who had been laid off.

Skilled trades with the most job opportunities in the San Diego area include infrastructure and commercial construction. While private-sector construction is still slow, there are ongoing public-sector projects involving mass transit and school construction. The state’s requirement that all new buildings be LEED-certified is also creating demand for people skilled in energy-efficient construction, Ornelas says.

“It’s absolutely critical for community colleges to work very closely with local employers” to assess labor market demands and provide training programs to meet their needs, Ornelas says.

The large military presence in San Diego has spurred SDCCD to recruit military veterans and pair their broad-based skills with jobs in aircraft maintenance, automotive technology and other trades, Ornelas says. The Vets2Jets program at SDCCD’s Miramar College provides counseling and career workshops to help people leaving the military make the transition to college.

Technology skills needed

In Kentucky, GCTC developed its Advanced Manufacturing Center in response to requests from local employers, says G. Edward Hughes, the college’s president and CEO, who also serves on the AACC Board of Directors. Despite the loss of some 10,000 manufacturing jobs in the area over the last decade, there is now potential for job growth, much of it due to retirements, he says.

While most of the jobs lost were low-wage, low-skill jobs, the new ones—in such areas as electronics, mechatronics, hydraulics and pneumatics—require higher skill levels, pay an average of $51,000 and are in clean, high-tech facilities, Hughes says.

The MAG plant where Joe Snyder works has automated its processes for manufacturing equipment to make aircraft fuselages.

“The operator has to know how to operate and program the machine, how to test the quality of materials produced, and understand how the machine fits into the overall production process,” Hughes says.

GCTC has partnered with several local companies that work with the college to design apprenticeship and training programs and subsidize all or part of students’ tuition while they work in paid jobs.

Despite these opportunities, “young people today typically don’t grow up with their moms and dads wanting them to work in a factory,” Hughes says. So it takes some persuasion to get people to enroll in trades education programs.

That’s why the college created what Hughes calls its “gee-whiz center.” The Advanced Manufacturing Center, which was recently featured on the “NBC Nightly News,” is equipped with computer-run manufacturing machines and it serves as a community showpiece.

“The center has become a focal point” for getting high school students interested in pursuing careers in manufacturing, Hughes says. The college presents workshops to educate high school and middle school counselors about the potential for careers in manufacturing, and GCTC instructors teach mechatronics courses at local high schools.

“Our goal is to have more young people finding their way to this career path and more older people coming back,” Hughes says.