The skilled-worker gap will likely widen in coming years — leaving us ill-prepared to compete on the global stage
Employers nationwide are struggling to find workers even after the massive job losses that followed the COVID-19 shutdowns. While there are several complex factors at play in the employment market, many workers are reluctant to return to the same jobs they worked at before the pandemic due to low pay or the lack of a clear career path. You would imagine, under these circumstances, that the skilled trades would be thriving. After all, these jobs offer high pay and bright futures for even entry-level workers. However, skilled-trade employers are also struggling to find workers with the skills they need.
In March the staffing company People- Ready Skilled Trades reported that “the most in-demand skilled-trade jobs are remaining unfilled the longest — roughly a month on average — due to the shortage of qualified workers.” It seems evident that providing unemployed workers with the training they need to qualify for these abundant and well-paying jobs would be an all-around win. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Skilled training has broken down in this country, and employers must do their part to fix it.
Our education system cannot act alone. Many businesses put the responsibility on educators to promote and teach skilled trades. While our community colleges and trade schools do admirable work, it is simply not enough to fill the need. For many high schoolers, a future in the trades is not attractive when compared to white-collar options, even if it provides more security and higher pay than other career paths. That is why employers should take an active role in promoting the benefits of skilled-trade work.
In my experience, businesses can be most effective in promoting skilled trades when they partner with organizations committed to serving the community. For example, Impact NW is a local organization focused on preventing homelessness. One way it pursues that mission is through its Career Opportunities Readiness & Exploration (CORE) program, which connects at-risk youth with job opportunities in manufacturing. Many of the kids involved in this program lack the resources or support to pursue a college degree. As an alternative, CORE provides the guidance and training they need to pursue a manufacturing career that will support them throughout their lives.
Another way that local business leaders can serve the community while also representing the skilled trades is to play an active role in local school districts. Not only is this a tangible way to influence education policy as it relates to skills training, leaders can also model a successful skilled-trades career for educators and students alike. For example, Columbia Steel’s sales and marketing director, Mike Moehnke, is active in his local school district as an elected board member.
These are, admittedly, longer-term solutions that will not solve the immediate skilled-trade shortage, which will only get worse as more baby boomers retire. That is why offering on-the-job training is crucial for most employers.
What about paid apprenticeships? These offer novice workers an opportunity to earn a wage while learning skills relevant to a particular industry. These jobs are still fairly common in the Northwest, especially in the construction industry and trade unions. The challenge is that you need a large enough pool of businesses with similar skills to justify offering these programs.
When there were 50 foundries in Oregon, it made sense to have paid apprenticeships. However, as manufacturing shrinks in the state, it becomes harder to do. Fortunately, organizations like the Steel Founders’ Society of America offer high-quality manufacturing training programs, which are more widely available than in the past because they are offered online.
In the absence of formal apprenticeship programs, employers can offer skills training in-house. While this is a less efficient method than having a large pool of available and well-trained workers at hand, it does offer employers the opportunity to teach new employees very specific skills that even formal training programs do not provide. For instance, many schools offer CNC machinist training, but Columbia Steel machinists work manually. As a result, we will bring workers in as trainees and teach them the skills of the trade from the ground up.
By all indicators, the skilled-worker gap will only grow worse in the coming years. If left unaddressed, production will decrease, costs will rise and our country will be less prepared to compete on the global stage. While the government and education system can do more to promote the promise of a skilled-trades career, businesses must also do their part. It will take a combination of individual and industry efforts to increase the number of America’s skilled-trades workers, so we can continue to recover from the pandemic and create a brighter future for America’s trade industries and its workers.
Martha Cox is president and CEO of Columbia Steel Casting Co.
To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here.