By James A. Mitchell
There’s no single formula for training skilled trades workers to fill the growing number of available positions, but workforce experts said uniform strategies can be applied to address specific industry needs.
“The gap impacts each employer differently because each business is different,” said Luann Dunsford, CEO of Michigan Works! Association. “The core problems and barriers are similar, but with subtle differences within each region. It needs to be case-by-case, and that means listening to those who use our systems.”
The MWA’s demand-driven approach requires a shared understanding between employers across all sectors in partnership with hiring agencies and educators. Current – and certainly future – skilled trades positions require at least some post-high school education and training.
“The key role for colleges is the ability to fast-track high school kids through certificate programs and into work,” said Janene Kelley Erne, apprenticeship coordinator at Oakland Community College. “It doesn’t have to take two or four years but can be as little as a year.”
Some of that foundation can be done even before future workers step into a college classroom. Skilled trade courses have been increasingly introduced at earlier levels for more immediate workforce readiness.
“In the past year we’ve increased the number of articulations by offering credit for work done at the high school level,” said Deborah Bayer, OCC dean of Engineering, Manufacturing and Industrial Technology. “They’re moving faster into specific programs.”
Bayer said that OCC has been working with Oakland County’s K-12 schools on early-college programs in the skilled trades. Among the challenges has been educating students – and their parents – on the need for tech-savvy workers in contemporary shops and factories.
“The older generation doesn’t realize how advanced manufacturing is today and the technology and computer skills needed,” Bayer said. “It’s no longer standing in a line and pushing one part through all day.”
One pathway that has proven successful has been the seemingly old-fashioned model of apprenticeships, which Erne said provides high school students with the hands-on, real world experience many employers have said is lacking. Among other initiatives OCC has introduced a technological sciences degree, a cross-disciplinary curriculum of engineering and technology.
“The need and pressure from industry for talent has gotten community colleges to work harder so these kids can enter the workforce by the time they’re 20 if not earlier,” Erne said. “One of our counselors said that her job is to help students get out of here as fast as possible. The real learning takes place out there.”