This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Wake Technical Community College.
Four years ago Forbes reported that there was a “skilled trades dilemma” in America. It noted the retirement age of much of the trade labor workforce, and said, “The hardest segment of the workforce for employers to staff with skilled talent hasn’t been registered nurses or engineers or even web developers. It’s been the skilled trades – the welders, electricians, machinists, etc. that are so prevalent in manufacturing and construction.”
In 2018, skilled trade work is still the most challenging industry to staff globally, according to ManpowerGroup, an international innovative workforce solutions company.
The reasons for this are vast and ambiguous. For many, it’s the stereotype that white-collar work is more “admirable” than blue-collar work that keeps many from pursuing the latter. Some pinpoint the advancement of technology and the idea that machines are doing the work that humans once did. Others allude to the baby boomer generation’s admonishment that their children and their children’s children should “go to college” and earn a traditional four-year degree.
But college isn’t for everyone. And despite the skilled worker shortage, recent research reveals that people are starting to take trade work and other professional pathways into consideration.
Last year, 39 percent of all respondents to the National Student Clearinghouse annual survey reported they were considering alternatives to a traditional four-year education based on cost alone. CNBC reported last year that trade school, not a four-year college, is the solution to the U.S. income gap.
“I think for years our educational institutions have pushed the four-year degree option,” said Michael Moore, director of Manufacturing and Apprenticeship Training at Wake Technical Community College. “They have downplayed the trades and some other jobs. People have the opinion that those are dead-end jobs, that they’re low-paying jobs, that they’re dirty jobs. [But, for example] if you’re an HVAC person, especially if you own your own business, it’s easy to make over six figures.”
The Wake Tech apprenticeship program works with companies and consortiums to deliver on-the-job skills training to trade or craft workers, combined with classroom instruction. Wake Tech can administer an apprenticeship for a company or consortium as long as there are enough students in the program (usually 10) and the students are employees of the company. Apprenticeship program students must be full-time employees who have to complete at least 2,000 hours of work experience and 144 hours of classroom instruction per year.
According to Wake Tech’s website, apprentices start their training with basic information such as safety, construction math, blueprint reading, and proper use and care of hand and power tools. As students progress through their apprenticeships, however, they are trained in advanced areas of their craft to ensure they become well-rounded, independent workers who can handle all aspects of their job.
The classroom portion includes instruction and demonstration of skills.
“For example, if we’re teaching somebody about electrical work and we’re talking about running wire or bending conduit, then once we teach them the theory behind it, they have to demonstrate that they can actually do that type of work,” Moore explained.
A LUCRATIVE CAREER OPTION
Trade careers, as Moore points out, aren’t for everyone. But for Liz Restar, it was just the type of thing she didn’t know she was looking for.
A graduate of Appalachian State University, Restar earned a degree in advertising and marketing, and subsequently worked in the business for a few years before she grew tired of it. She started a new career as a CNA, and while she excelled, she was still left wanting.
“The pivotal moment – I think – was one evening when I was on the phone with my best friend,” Restar recalls. “I was kind of venting, and it was a tough day at the office, and I was telling her that, ‘You know, I don’t want a job where I have to answer phones and respond to emails and have to sit a desk for hours at a time.’ She just kind of sighed, and she could tell that I was frustrated.”
Restar said her friend asked her if she had ever considered something in the skilled trades — like welding. “She just kind of threw that out, and for whatever reason, that just sparked an interest in me.”
Restar started her welding apprenticeship with Mechanical Trades Carolina in 2015. Since then she has worked on several projects and said that her work enables her to be part of something as a collective, and noted the gratification that comes from seeing the finished product she helped build.
She quoted the saying, “skilled labor isn’t cheap, and cheap labor isn’t skilled,” and said that her five-year apprenticeship is molding her into a quality worker who is held to a higher standard.
According to Mechanical Trades Carolina, a first-year apprentice in pipe fitting, plumbing or welding starts out at a $16.80 hourly salary. Fifth-year apprentices make $25.20 hourly, and once apprentices are turned out as journeymen, their hourly rate becomes $28.
For Restar, enrolling in a trade apprenticeship was a decision that helped her get out of a career rut and find something she truly loves.
“I would say if you’re in your current job, or if you’re someone like myself still trying to figure out what you want to do and you find yourself saying, ‘Man, you know I’m frustrated. You know I just want to find something where I can just do my job, do a good job, step back and be proud of what I’ve helped build,’ and not have to take it home with you, and be compensated well for it — I would say, go for it,” she said.
A WAY TO DEVELOP ‘BEST IN CLASS’ WORKERS
“Best in class” is a standard DPR Construction holds itself to as well. The nationally ranked general contracting company is gearing up to put its first round of apprentices through the Wake Tech program this fall.
Malcolm Roberts, a project manager for DPR’s SPW (self-performed work) division, said the company wanted to do something that would help its workers become “the best in class.”
“One of our senior project managers was at a trade fair somewhere and came across some of the leadership from Wake Tech. They put us in contact, and then we got together here in our office and started to put together a plan for [an] apprenticeship,” Roberts said.
The DPR SPW apprenticeship will focus on carpentry.
“The apprenticeship [will] touch on all sorts of facets of being a carpenter. It touches on wood framing, it touches on concrete, it touches on a little bit of everything, and it just makes [workers] more well rounded. What we like to call them is a mechanic — it’s a metal commercial carpenter,” said Bruce Worcester, general construction superintendent of DPR SPW. “[This apprenticeship] gives them a more well-rounded education and just makes for a better employee too because we can go to any job and they understand all the facets.”
Worcester said that an apprenticeship shows more aspects of the trade, and builds a better foundation.
“We self-perform a lot of our own work,” he continued. “We’re not just construction managers; we actually have builders, so we need craftsman in our ranks. We need good, well-rounded, well-trained craftsman because that’s who we are. That’s why we take such a vested interest in [this program] because the people that we’re training are our people. Wake Tech is just a great training and learning environment, and [they] are just as enthusiastic about it as we are.”
Moore reiterated that the Wake Tech apprenticeship program is for those who are apprenticing and already working in their trade — Wake Tech does not do job placement through the program.
“[It’s for] companies that are out there that want their employees to upgrade their skills [and] get involved in apprenticeship; or we register the apprenticeship, and they send their students to us. We have been doing electrical apprenticeship here at Wake Tech for over 25 years. We’ve been doing plumbing and pipe fitting and welding for … probably over 10 or 12 years,” he said. “Any businesses that are out there that want to establish apprenticeship programs, if they contact us then we can usually come up with a way to make that happen for them.”
PAINLESS APPRENTICESHIPS, AND NOT JUST FOR TRADES
While trade jobs may not be in the cards for everyone, Moore said for many, they can be lucrative and fulfilling careers. He sees Wake Tech expanding its offerings beyond traditional trade work into the information technology, healthcare, hospitality, hotel and restaurant industries.
“So the individuals who want to get into a career field who don’t necessarily want to go to your traditional educational option, but they do want a career and not just a job, apprenticeship is an excellent option,” Moore said.
Many companies have avoided developing apprenticeship programs because of the administrative overhead required to manage them. But this is a new day, and Wake Tech will handle the paperwork to set up a qualifying program.
Moore said, “We want to make it easier for companies to commit to an apprenticeship program. It is good for the company, it is good for their workers, and it is good for economic development here in Wake County.”
This story was written for WRAL TechWire Innovator partner Wake Technical Community College.