The Endangered Blue-Collar Worker

While policymakers focus on the need for more grads with bachelor’s degrees, middle-skill jobs go unfilled

Back Article Jan 11, 2016 By Steven Yoder

Douglas Stricker of Folsom, 58, knows all about the need for skilled laborers. In 1992, he launched Golden Development, a company that built storage tanks and other structures for refineries and chemical companies. He had a crew of between 20 and 40 workers but never could find enough reliable welders — even in jobs that paid up to $30 an hour.

Younger workers often didn’t have key skills — he’d have to show them basics, like how to attach an oxygen regulator to the cutting torch bottle. When he’d find someone with the know-how, they’d last six or eight months before leaving, often because of personal issues.

“If I could have found and kept good, solid people… so that I could walk away from the company for a day or two, my company would have absolutely flourished,” he says. “I just got tired of trying to keep good people — it just wore me out.” Finally in 2008, he shut down.

State university leaders and policymakers say they worry about a shortage of grads from 4-year university programs. One oft-cited report projects that by 2025, California’s economy will have a million fewer workers with bachelor’s degrees than it needs. But today, the real deficit is in skilled blue-collar workers, and it’s constraining many firms’ growth right now.

Save the skilled Trades

Labor experts call these “middle-skill” workers, because the jobs they occupy require more than a diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree.

Area construction contractors have been warning for some time that the shortage of skilled workers is hurting them. Esther Martinez of the Sacramento office of American Labor Pool, a blue-collar staffing agency, says she has the toughest time finding electricians, carpenters and concrete finishers. Building contractors from the Bay Area call her because they’ve run out of people to hire locally, which pulls away Sacramento talent. “[Contractors] are paying for transportation, tolls and everything else to bring people down there,” Martinez says.

When companies consider capital investment, they’re usually thinking about buildings, equipment and vehicles. But today, many are scrambling to get enough of another type — human beings.

At Sacramento’s CVC Construction, if a current employee recruits a new person who stays at least a year, they get a $2,000 bonus and the new employee gets $500. “We’re doing things we’ve never done to attract employees,” says president Paul Esch.

But firms outside the building trades are finding it increasingly hard to fill middle-skill jobs, too. Plumbers, tractor-trailer drivers, machinists, diesel and maintenance mechanics and toolmakers are increasingly hard to find, says Rod Miller of Workers.com, an industrial staffing company in Concord. And Martinez says she has trouble finding certified workers, like those who remove asbestos. She says many of her clients are settling for someone who’s only semi-qualified because there’s just no one else available.

And it’s “almost impossible” to hire skilled welders and machinists, says Joseph Wernette of Tri Tool in Rancho Cordova, which manufactures precision machine tools. The company is now trying to lure applicants from the Bay Area and Southern California.

Car repair shops are getting squeezed too. “It’s really scary,” says Mary Kemnitz of D&H Enterprises, which has car repair shops in Concord. “Nothing will cripple an auto shop faster than the lack of enough qualified technicians.” Lynne Cardwell of Sacramento’s Car Care Center says her shop is “recruiting candidates all the time.”

Related: The Capital Region Needs More Skilled Laborers

Beau Hause of Sacramento’s Universal Technical Institute, which trains automotive, diesel and other technicians, says he gets calls “pretty much every week” from garages looking for employees. When UTI held its most recent career fair, 42 employers showed up — more than double the number five years ago. Some dealerships are paying UTI students’ full tuition fees if they agree to work at the company for a set period after graduation.

American River College’s 2-year programs for aspiring auto technicians, auto collision specialists and diesel technicians graduate between 200 and 300 specialists each year.

“I heard an announcement on the radio the other day about saving the arts,” says Wernette. “I don’t think I’ve heard one saying, ‘Save the technical trades.’”

The New psychological barrier

The skilled labor pool may be shrinking, but it’s not as though employers are trolling for fish using bottlecaps as bait. Hourly rates for heavy equipment operators are up to $27 or $28 from $23 or $24 a few years ago, says Miller. Truck drivers who were making $17 or $18 per hour are now at $23 or $24. Esch says labor rates went up 20 percent this year in construction — no one with his company makes less than $30,000 a year. Three to five years after they join, most are at about $60,000 per year, he says.

It’s the same in other fields. Those who get certified to fix heating and air-conditioning systems make near six figures within five or six years, says Jon Zeh, chair of the Mechanical Electrical Technology Department at Sacramento City College. And they can get that training in a program that offers a 2-year degree for less than $3,500 — or for low-income students, nothing at all. Contrast that with the average $37,000 tuition for an in-state bachelor’s degree at California’s public universities.

Nearly everyone trying to hire skilled laborers points to the lack of shop and industrial arts programs in high schools. Zeh says that in the 80s, his program had a steady stream of students entering straight from high school. That changed in the 90s after a systematic push to get every student into a 4-year college, he remembers. Vocational tracks were discontinued. The flow of younger students slowed to such a trickle that the program switched to night classes, so they could refocus on offering continuing education to those already employed.

In September, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded $5 million to the Los Rios Community College District to set up a manufacturing apprenticeship program in five schools

Cardwell says school leaders and policymakers should rethink their goals. In the 70s, high school counselors would often suggest vocational school to students who didn’t enjoy academics, but that’s no longer the case, she says. “There is a psychological bent of school systems to pretend that every student is going to finish college,” she says. “It sounds wonderful and high-minded.” But it doesn’t reflect reality for many students. “If they had a rough time in school and didn’t enjoy it, they’re not going to subject themselves to more of it in college,” she contends.

Parents who are steering their technically minded children into a 4-year degree track also may have an outdated understanding of these jobs. Today they require sophisticated hard and soft skills. Forget the “grease monkey” image — Cardwell’s automotive technicians are working on cars that often have 20 or 30 computers. They take six or seven advanced courses a year. They all have their own business cards. And working on cars today is a “pretty clean” job, she says.

Len Davisson, a project manager at Barnum & Celillo Electric, has seen the growing need for soft skills in his 30 years in the construction trades. Foremen at his company now must submit their timecards in Excel. They text key information to their supervisors on their smartphones. They’re digitally submitting site photos to clients on their laptops.

Wanted: 5,000 Auto Technicians

Technical programs at community colleges should be the nexus linking underemployed and low-skilled workers to fields where demand for their skills is high. But so far they’re not attracting enough students to fill the needs.

Sacramento’s American River College, for example, runs 2-year programs turning out auto technicians, auto collision specialists and diesel technicians. Together, all three programs graduate between 200 and 300 specialists a year. But the school is getting more requests from auto dealerships for its interns, certificate holders and graduates than it can keep up with, says college president Thomas Greene. One company he says is asking for them is Fiat Chrysler, which needs to add 5,000 auto technicians by 2018, according to Automotive News.

Community colleges are trying to change that by reigniting interest in the industrial arts among high school students. In November, American River College held an all-day event for a hundred selected students from area schools to learn about career opportunities in welding, electronics and construction, and what the path to getting into those fields looks like.

Sacramento City College’s Career Technical Education programs prepare students for careers in the skilled trades, applied arts and sciences, and modern technologies.

And last December, area school districts won $7.5 million from the state to retool their own curricula to give students practical skills earlier. Under the initiative, high school students will have the option to choose a career pathway, like manufacturing or construction. They’ll then get hands-on training in their classes and have internships that allow them to learn machine tooling, welding, cabinetry making and installation of mechanical systems, among others.

Outside money also is coming in to help community colleges develop more middle-skill workers. In September, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded $5 million to the Los Rios Community College District to set up a manufacturing apprenticeship program in five schools, among them American River College, Cosumnes River College and Sierra College. Curricula and schedules will be redesigned to support apprentice training, with the goal of turning out a thousand new manufacturing workers — like welders, machinists and mechatronics specialists—by 2020.

But those efforts will produce results a few years down the road, and some companies aren’t waiting. Mark Nilsen of Teichert Construction, a union contractor, says the company is renewing its focus on using union apprenticeship programs to bring in, train and keep young heavy equipment operators, laborers and cement masons. As part of the effort, new employees get teamed up with a mentor and are moved around to different crews to get experience. Time will tell how well it works in producing skilled people who stay for the long term, Nilsen says.

One college leader thinks we need to reinvent the zeitgeist around post-secondary education itself. More students should be encouraged to get a marketable skill right after high school rather than going straight to a 4-year college, says Donnetta Webb, dean of Sacramento City College’s Advanced Technology Division. “If I had a kid today, my advice would be ‘Learn a trade, learn a skill and then if you want, go back to school for a 4-year degree once you have earned some money and have experience,’” she says.

That beats what she’s seen a few times recently: students with bachelor’s degrees entering her 2-year programs to make themselves marketable. 

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