By: Madeline Novey
Via: The Coloradoan
Employers want people like Lexynton Seeley.
The 17-year-old Berthoud High School senior is one of about 60 students in Front Range Community College’s welding certificate program for high school students. Raised by a dad who’s skilled in the craft, she later dated someone enrolled in the program and thought: “It looks really interesting to me, this trade that’s in such high demand.”
After graduation, she’s considering going to New Mexico State University or the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to study biomedical engineering or mechanical engineering, with the hope of one day building prosthetics or bodily implants.
She plans to weld during the summers to pay tuition: “I didn’t want to be eternally paying debt.”
Seeley is part of a new generation of workers who could change the face of employment in Larimer County and the nation, bridging the gap between skills employers need and the workforce.
Blue-collar work is changing. Workplace environments are safer and cleaner. The wages are in many cases higher than jobs filled by a plethora of college graduates.
National labor statistics indicate there’s a need for roughly 300,000 machinists, welders and other skilled tradespeople to fill vacancies left by a wave of people in their 50s and 60s nearing or in retirement. Media have widely reported that industry-specific phenomenon, but the skills gap touches other facets of Larimer County’s job market.
September’s unemployment rate dropped to 3.2 percent — the lowest level since 2007 — but people are still looking for work.
Jobs in retail, restaurants, hospitality and personal services are among the county’s fastest-growing industries that support the population, according to TIP’s labor market profile, but are relatively low-paying and highly competitive; the region has an “overqualified” workforce to meet the needs of these industries. At the same time, Larimer County employers are having trouble hiring welders, machinists, electricians, sales representatives, drivers, engineers and more.
About half of Larimer County workers have a bachelor’s degree or higher. But only 23 percent of the region’s jobs require college degrees, as reported in a September labor market profile compiled by Austin-based TIP Strategies.
Closing the gap is imperative to building a healthy economy.
Josh Birks, the city’s economic development director, thinks it’s the responsibility of the entire community — the city, educational institutions, employers, the Larimer County Workforce Center and others — to close the skills gap. He said his office will work with partners to further dissect TIP Strategies’ labor market profile and use the data to inform a current revisit of the 2012 Economic Health Strategic Plan, presented to the City Council on Tuesday.
Closing the skills gap will require a number of steps. Programs such the machining shop at Front Range Community College’s Longmont campus — one of nine community colleges to receive a portion of dollars from a $25 million U.S. Department of Labor Grant to build a pipeline of advanced manufacturing workers — can’t do it alone.
Birks said such steps could include increasing alignment between employers and educational institutions, as PSD, Front Range and other institutions have been doing. It could also mean helping connect the labor force with training programs and create greater awareness of employer needs, as the Economic Health Strategic Plan rework addresses, he said.
The city’s Economic Health Office is also aiming to create less of a mismatch between the highly educated workforce and the relatively low percentage of jobs that require a college degree, said Caroline Alexander, a consultant at TIP Strategies. She said the office is cultivating key industry clusters, supporting an innovative ecosystem that fosters new business development and growth; and is ensuring the city has space for these businesses to grow.
“Of course, these strategies will take time to narrow the gap,” she wrote, “but the city has gained traction over the last three years since it adopted its Economic Health Strategic Plan.”
How we got here
Some say it’s too difficult to pin down one culprit for the skills gap.
Some point to impending waves of baby boomer retirements and a lack of trained people to fill tens of thousands of vacant positions, as is the case in skilled trades such as welding and machining. Some think there’s a lack of awareness about the aforementioned jobs and how good they can be. Others say we as a society pushed too hard to get everyone to go to college and, thus, siphoned off pipelines feeding blue-collar industries.
“It’s pretty well known that if you go to college, you will make higher wages than if you don’t. That’s certainly the push that we put out there,” said Martin Shields, CSU’s regional economist.
Shields was referring to the oft-advertised statistic that college graduates will, on average, make $1 million more in their lifetime than someone without a degree.
But “wages for college-educated workers are stagnant and others are declining. A college education is not this path to riches, necessarily; it’s the path to treading water,” he said.
George Newman, director of Front Range Community College’s machining program, said “there’s been an overemphasis on four years of college for everyone.”
He’s noticed a philosophical shift that puts college and trade work education on more equal footing. It’s driven by increased awareness about the skills gap, a greater consideration of whether students want to take on significant student loan debt to pay for college and shifting perceptions about machining.
Contrasted with their oil-splattered, 20th-century machining shop counterparts, today’s facilities are cleaner and safer, Newman said. Instructor Brian Glover joked on a recent day in October that one could “eat off the floors” in the new machining shop at Front Range Community College’s Longmont campus.
“I mean, look at this facility,” he said, motioning to rows of computer-controlled equipment programmed by humans to do precise work. “It’s not your grandfather’s machine shop anymore.”
Impact on employers
Mandy Dicker is a recruiter for A World of Tile, which has 15 stores in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. The company intends to grow annual revenues from $15 million to $100 million by 2020, and it “absolutely” faces a challenge to fill sales representatives positions.
College graduates are great, Dicker said, but employees don’t necessarily need the degree to make the cut; eagerness to serve people and sales skills (taught in company-specific trainings) are key to getting a position she said pays an average of $50,000 a year.
In the Fort Collins market, Dicker said she’s yet to figure out where and how to reach job seekers. The secret to closing their skills gap is yet unsolved. She thinks people may not consider sales as a career because the job is overshadowed by a negative reputation. People don’t want to be used car salesmen, she said.
Steve Anderson is CEO of Forney Industries, one of the oldest manufacturing companies in Fort Collins. He’s working with others in the Northern Colorado Manufacturers Group, as well as partners PSD, Front Range and CSU, trying to bring more manufacturing to the region. He is struggling to find people to do the work.
“We are seeing a real void in kids that have the ability to get into manufacturing. They are not aware of the jobs, for sure, but they don’t have the training,” he said.
The college path isn’t for everyone, something Poudre School District recently stressed in its long-term vision for what graduates should look like.
Jason Walsh, director of Front Range Community College’s welding technology program at the school’s south Fort Collins campus, said his shops are running at full steam. He’s enrolled all the students he can and is excited for the campus’ new integrated technology building to open later in 2014 with a larger footprint and extra welding bays.
Roughly 50 students graduate from FRCC’s welding programs each semester; a bigger building could increase the number of graduates 10 percent to 20 percent, he estimates. However, another challenge is finding and hiring trained instructors who are willing to earn less in academia than in the field.
“We’re in a weird spot where we’re not really having a major shortage in people who want to learn. We’re seeing a bottleneck in being able to train them quickly for it,” he said.
When Walsh started at FRCC’s Larimer campus 10 years ago, he got calls from parents asking him whether it was safe for their children to work as welders and if they’d make enough money to make ends meet. Things have changed.
“We’re constantly getting calls from parents that want us to talk with their kids about welding instead of going to a four-year college,” he said. A significant factor is money.
A young person could spend four years and accrue tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a liberal arts degree and make $30,000 to $40,000 a year, Walsh said. Or they could pay about $6,000 for an associate degree in welding technology at Front Range “and they’ll have a job waiting for them” at graduation day making $16 to $20 per hour.
Even with “low skills and low experience,” companies across Northern Colorado are “giving people a chance.”
“It’s really a no-brainer if you want to pay the bills,” Walsh said.
“Blue collar, we make more than people with history degrees,” said Jen Steen, prevision machining instructor at FRCC’s Longmont campus. And for the self-described entrepreneur with an MBA working in manufacturing means being part of something bigger, something necessary to keep America’s economy vibrant.
“I think there’s a lot of pride to being part of what keeps the world turning,” she said.