‘Dirty jobs’ pay middle-class wages

Shortage of middle skills workers a growing concern
A one-year certificate in diesel technology helped Julio Lopez secure a job as a lead fleet technician. Credit: Rob Vanya, San Jacinto College .

Half of teens have “little or no interest” in blue-collar jobs, according to a survey by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA). These are low-paying “dirty jobs,” high school students and their parents believe.

Because of the stigma, Houston is facing a shortage of welders, electricians, pipefitters, machinists, auto mechanics and manufacturing workers, say business leaders. UpSkill Houston is working with San Jacinto College to attract more young people to what are now called “middle-skill” jobs.

Julio Lopez earned a one-year certificate of technology from San Jacinto College’s diesel technology program.  He started as a diesel tech at $18 an hour. After three years and a promotion, he now earns in the “mid- to upper-20s an hour” with the potential to move higher. He loves the work.

“I started as a kid, changing oil and worked my way up to eventually building engines,” he said. “To take something that will not run and disassemble it, repair it, and rebuild it brings a feeling of real accomplishment and pride.”

With a two-year degree in welding technology from San Jacinto College, Emily Choate earned $25 to $35 an hour as a welder and welding inspector. She now teaches welding at San Jacinto.

Welding is an art, said Choate. “It’s like painting, but my canvas is metal, my paint is a weld puddle, and my brush is an electrode. When I drop that hood and strike an arc, the whole world disappears, and it’s just me and that weld.”

FabLab creates products, skilled workers

Students, entrepreneurs and small businessmen have used the fabrication lab at Mott Community College to create “everything from teething rings to automotive tools,” reports Michigan Live. A new 3D printer at the Flint, Michigan college will make it possible to “create products that are heat resistant, chemical resistant, waterproof and clear with three different choices in more durable materials.”

“(Fabrication labs are) places for people with creative ideas to get the idea off of the napkin and out of your head and get a working model in your hand,” said Tom Crampton, executive dean for Mott’s regional technology initiatives.

. . . things like prototype automotive parts will go straight from the printer to a working engine to see if what sounds good on paper works in real life.

The lab doesn’t just train students, Crampton said. It also supports product development. Flint needs more business.

Dustin Anger, 26, was a student at Mott when he came up with the idea for Specloc, a test tube clip that makes it easier to transport blood specimens. FabLab students helped him create a digital file and print a prototype.

Thomas Clark (right), of Flint, looks over a guitar designed in the Mott Community College FABLAB.

Thomas Clark (right), of Flint, looks over a guitar designed in the Mott Community College FABLAB.

Throughout the patent process, Anger printed hundreds of prototypes to decide what needed to be improved. By the end of the year, Anger plans to launch his company, DeNami Solutions.

“(Before stumbling upon the FabLab) I had no idea how to take this idea to a touchable product I could hold in my hand,” Anger said. “I met the most important connection of my life at the FabLab, the manufacturer for my product. . . . It’s a super helper. It’s a creativity sparker.

More than a half a million dollars-worth equipment will soon be coming to Mott’s FabLab to improve training in welding, machining, mechatronics and production. Training on state-of-the-art equipment will help Mott graduates find skilled jobs in automotive, aerospace, energy and other industries.

Get the job, then train for it

The trucking industry needs to hire 95,000 new truckers every year, but training programs turn out only 75,000 and half the job applicants are ineligible due to recent drunk driving convictions. A startup called WorkAmerica is trying to fill the gap: The company vets would-be truckers and places them in community college training programs — with a guaranteed job offer.

“No student should enroll in a vocational job program without having a job guarantee,” said Collin Gutman, WorkAmerica’s CEO and co-founder. “We get jobs for people before they start a college class.”

“A growing number of startups want to play the matchmaker role between community colleges and employers,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

WorkAmerica plans to forge partnerships with community colleges and expand into high-churn fields such as welding, medical assistants, and IT and HVAC technicians.

Employers pay the company to screen prospective hires. If they meet the company’s requirements, they get a job offer good if the applicant completes the academic program in good standing. Community colleges, which pay nothing, “get a pipeline of students without having to spend on marketing,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

Maryland’s Hagerstown Community College is considering a partnership with WorkAmerica for the college’s eight-week trucking program. The company is talking to Anne Arundel Community College , also in Maryland, about pilot programs in several fields beyond trucking, Gutman said.

Another company, Workforce IO, has created a technology platform to link employers with job trainers such as community colleges, nonprofit organizations, mentors or bosses.

Workforce IO hinges on being able to vouch for the reliability of entry-level job candidates. It does that by having created a “library of skills” in various fields and offering digital badges for those skills, said Elena Valentine, a co-founder of the company.

Workforce IO has collaborated with Grand Rapids Community College, in Michigan, as well as an Illinois campus of Everest College, a for-profit institution.

California faces demand for college, job training

In Educating Julio, California Competes looks at where the state’s community colleges should grow to meet student demand and promote equity.
The report looks at two students: Julio is interested in the building trades, but doesn’t know how he can find a training program. Pablo has been admitted to University of California at Merced, but is thinking about enrolling at Santa Monica College with hopes of transferring to UCLA.

Pablo and his middle-class parents will search for the best educational choices. The “squeaky wheel gets the seat.”

Julio “won’t even realize there is a welding program at his nearby college unless someone finds him and talks to him.” His unmet demand for job training will be invisible.

The current system favors the status quo, concludes California Competes. Under the state’s governance system, community college boards can’t approve new programs or change the curriculum without approval from the faculty senate. That lets incumbent instructors protect their turf. “Even if launching a welding program is the right move to attract and retain Julio as a student, it may not happen if key interest groups have other priorities in mind.”

Funding rewards colleges that play it safe. Opening a new campus in a high-need neighborhood or starting classes in new fields is risky. If the students don’t enroll, the college could miss targets. It’s safer to offer classes in “the subjects and locations where enrollment is most certain.”

Under Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget, California’s community colleges finally will be able to increase enrollment. Growth should be funded by regions rather than districts, the report argues.

Formal district boundaries have become increasingly obsolete. In the wake of Proposition 13, the colleges became primarily state-funded. While colleges used to impose barriers or costs on out-of-district students, colleges now enroll any California resident on equal terms.

Statewide, nearly a third of all students cross the invisible district lines to enroll at what may or may not be the nearest community college. At the extreme, nearly nine out of ten students at Santa Monica College live outside of the district.

Most California high school students are not eligible for state universities: Only 38 percent of graduates complete college-prep courses with a C or better. Factoring in students who don’t graduate on time, only 30 percent of students — 20 percent of Latinos and 18 percent of blacks — can enroll directly in a state university. 

It pays to earn a 2-year degree

Earning an associate or bachelor’s degree paid off for students who enrolled in North Carolina community colleges in 2002-03, concludes a working paper from the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment (CAPSEE).  The economic returns for health-care credentials such as nursing were “extremely high.”

However, certificates did not produce strong economic benefits.

The recession did not erode the “substantial and consistent” gains from earning a two-year degree, the report found. “Even accumulating some college credits (but no degree) led to higher earnings for students.”

Students who earned degrees in nursing, allied health fields, construction, mechanics and welding improved their earning significantly, reports Community College Daily. However, there were no economic returns for women who earned education or child care degrees; men in those fields actually did worse.

The CAPSEE review tracked incomes five years after initial enrollment for students enrolling between 2001 and 2008 and completing an associate degree. It found that the advantage conferred by a degree remained consistent — about $4,800 per year for women and $3,000 per year for men — despite the recession starting in late 2007.

Graduates were less likely to be unemployed, according to CAPSEE.

Skills gap is small, but growing

The “skills gap” is no big deal now — but it could be in the future, if we don’t take steps to train new workers, writes Harold Sirkin, a Boston Consulting Group partner, in Businessweek.

The shortage of skilled welders, machinists, and industrial machinery mechanics represents less than 1 percent of U.S. manufacturing workers, Sirkin estimates.  Only seven states and five cities — Baton Rouge, Charlotte, Miami, San Antonio, and Wichita — have significant shortages.

However, that could change in the next 10 years as manufacturing grows and baby boomers retire. The average high-skilled manufacturing worker in the U.S. is 56 years old, according to government data.

Technical and community colleges are working with employers to train workers in some parts of the country,  Sirkin writes.

In Georgia, for example, a program called Quick Start provides companies with customized workforce training and retraining, free of charge, in partnership with the state’s technical colleges.

Here in Chicago, the Austin Polytechnical Academy teaches students all aspects of industry and has its own manufacturing training center.

“Most high-skill manufacturing jobs require only a high school education and on-the-job training,” yet few companies recruit in high schools, Sirkin writes. And manufacturing doesn’t appeal to young people seeking bachelor’s degrees, even though half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

The question we need to ask bright young people today is this: Would they be better off with a college degree in mass communication, “poli sci,” or sociology that gets them a job as a retail clerk or waiting tables, or would they be better off with a real skill that qualifies them for a high-paying manufacturing job?

After years of high unemployment and rising college costs, students are wising up about borrowing for a degree in what we used to call “fuzzy studies.” But advanced manufacturing — and other technical careers — may not be open to students with weak math and science skills.

In new economy, welding is a STEM job

Welding is a STEM job, says Traci Tapani, CEO of a Minnesota sheet-metal company that’s  training its workers, rather than relying on local community colleges, writes New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Wyoming Machine works on armoring Humvees.

“Many years ago, people learned to weld in a high school shop class or in a family business or farm, and they came up through the ranks and capped out at a certain skill level. They did not know the science behind welding,” so could not meet the new standards of the U.S. military and aerospace industry.

“They could make beautiful welds,” she said, “but they did not understand metallurgy, modern cleaning and brushing techniques” and how different metals and gases, pressures and temperatures had to be combined.

Moreover, in small manufacturing businesses like hers, explained Tapani, “unlike a Chinese firm that does high-volume, low-tech jobs, we do a lot of low-volume, high-tech jobs, and each one has its own design drawings. So a welder has to be able to read and understand five different design drawings in a single day.”

Unable to find qualified applicants, Wyoming Machine hired a trainer. But it was hard to find trainees with sufficient math and science skills, says Tapani.

“I can’t think of any job in my sheet metal fabrication company where math is not important. If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it’s bent to a certain angle.”

Many community colleges and universities can’t keep up with employers’ needs, Friedman writes.

Miami Dade College makes workforce training a priority, collaborating with more than 100 companies, says Eduardo Padrón, the president.  “Every program that we offer has an industry advisory committee that helps us with curriculum, mentorship, internships and scholarships.”

Immigrants used to take an unskilled job and work their way into the middle class, Padrón says. “That is no longer possible.”  Education is a necessity, not a “luxury for the few.”

Welding is hot

Welding is a hot career field at community colleges, reports Community College Times.

At Wallace State Community Collegein Alabama, enrollment in the welding program has doubled since 2007.

“In my 15 years at Wallace State, every graduate who has wanted a job has gotten a job,” said welding instructor Jim Thompson. “A good, skilled welder can get a job anywhere.”

Across the nation, community colleges are expanding welding programs. Owens Community College in Ohio and Randolph Community College (RCC) in North Carolina have opened new welding centers. Mobile welding stations have opened at Flathead Valley Community College in Montana and Pitt Community College in North Carolina.

The National Center for Welding Education and Training, which is located at Lorain County Community College in Ohio, received a $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to train welders in advanced techniques. The industry needs about 30,000 new welders annually, Weld-Ed estimates.


Welding for greatness

Car collector Jay Leno is promoting welding careers.

Welding looks for respect

“Welding is not held in high regard,” says Duncan Estep, director of the National Center for Welding Education and Training (Weld-Ed), a public-private partnership based at Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Ohio. People think welding is dirty and dangerous.

Weld-Ed stresses that modern welding is a high-tech field. LCCC offers a two-year degree for welding technicians, who serve as the liaison between engineers and welders.

The average welder today is 56 years old. Some 239,000 new and replacement jobs in welding will be created within the next eight years, Weld-Ed estimates.

The group is promoting welding as a noble, stable and high-paying occupation.