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The trades alternative

Education | Parents are reluctant to hear it, but college may no longer offer the best path of opportunity for a great many young people

Issue: "Agony and ecstasy," April 7, 2012

IOWA and ILLINOIS-The conventional wisdom says a 21-year-old should have a college degree to have the best shot at landing a job in a tough job market. But today's unemployment landscape is hardly conventional. It may be that your high-school classmate who tinkered in the garage and became a mechanic might have been on to something.

The sweet spot in a sour jobs market can be found where targeted education meets grime on the fingers. The marketplace's natural balance of supply and demand is at work, bringing back an old alternative to college: learning a trade. Skilled trade workers are in demand, and that demand is set to rise.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate last year, Mike Rowe-the rugged host of television's Dirty Jobs-said nearly a half million trade jobs are out there for the taking across the United States. That sets up a huge dichotomy in a struggling economy: People can't find jobs, and yet, good jobs can't find qualified people.

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With national unemployment at 8.3 percent, these are unfilled jobs that demand trade skills and certification, not a liberal arts education. As Rowe said, "We're surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn't be. We've pretty much guaranteed it."

Despite reminders about other avenues to a good living, many high-school students and their parents still tend toward the college option, no matter the student's aptitude. Mary Gibb has been at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, for 14 years, and heads up the counseling department. In this relatively affluent area, she sees many students ignoring tech courses, and she frets that students who don't get a hands-on opportunity to try skills such as electronics might never realize they like the field: "I see the problem getting worse before it gets better."

Aaron Haunhorst, one of the owners of Professional Labor Support in Illinois, says the shortage of skilled labor is no myth, yet most recent high-school graduates are not aware of the possibilities. Haunhorst notes that highly skilled welders of alloyed materials, or top industrial electricians at major manufacturing plants, often clear $100,000-plus yearly incomes.

Alicia Martin, CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of Illinois, represents 325 non-union employers in the state: She says contractors are steadily looking for and hiring qualified people for needed trades. Her association is in the mix, offering its own certification and apprentice program for a journeyman's card, and often matching up workers with member contractors.

For a trade-minded teen or young adult, it's a route to steady pay for a lot less time in class and far less tuition cost: "Our program is a bargain," Martin says. "[These skills] are going to be a big need. We are an alternative to college, and we want to get the word out to high-school guidance counselors." Companies like Professional Labor Support use the ABC training program to supply skilled labor to contractors.

Students who complete one of the 130 vocational programs at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) are also in good shape, says Jacki Boldt, student employment specialist: "These students typically have jobs before they graduate." DMACC's one- and two-year training programs lead to certifications for various electronics specialties, along with diesel, welding, and tool and die jobs. Placement is often with businesses hiring one or two workers at a time, but major employers like John Deere Co. also come knocking: Graduates with two or more related skill sets are particularly desirable.

Growing interest in trade fields is not news to Gary Senff, welding instructor at Central Community College in Columbia, Neb. The college added another welding teacher last year, and added classes two more nights a week to accommodate growing interest. Employers call him "all the time," he says: "It's a growing career. I believe the wages are going to go up. People are retiring out, too." Rowe of Dirty Jobs emphasized that changing of the guard in his congressional testimony: Many "baby boomer" tradesmen are getting set to hang up their tools, and not enough young people are stepping into these trades to replace them.

Pointing young people toward a skill set they can enjoy and use to find work is a niche many schools seem unable to fill. In Des Moines, the Freedom for Youth ministry (winner of WORLD's 2010 award for Effective Compassion) reaches some 200 middle- and high-school youths. "We teach them work skills," director Mark Nelson emphasizes, in a way that's "centered on Christ. He has given you gifts and abilities. Let's see what those are and get after it."


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