Young skilled workers in demand in face of budget cuts, focus on core classes

SANDUSKY Skilled workers are in high demand, yet many in the industrial technology field claim there's a sho
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Skilled workers are in high demand, yet many in the industrial technology field claim there's a shortage of young people trained for the tasks.

Schools and vocational centers strive to supply those workers, but instructors say if more schools offered programs in robotics, welding, drafting, engineering and wood technology manufacturing, the industrial technology fields wouldn't be hurting.

Bob Wilhelm, a carpentry instructor at EHOVE, said the average age of today's construction worker is 52.

"We need skilled construction workers for entry-level jobs and beyond to replace those retiring workers," he said.

Brad Watson, a first-year welding teacher at Sandusky High School, said after graduating from EHOVE, he went straight into the field -- but his concern for the industry brought him back to school.

"Coming straight from the industry and being fresh in my field of industry, I can definitely say it's tough to find young people coming out of school multi-skilled in many trades," he said. "I pursued teaching to encourage kids to go into these fields."

Tony Limberios, who teaches industrial technology at Sandusky, said while working on his masters degree, he learned schools across the nation have scaled back on skilled trades.

Limberios said the legislature is focusing more on core classes and pushing every child to go to college, rather than giving them opportunities to train for a vocation.

Upcoming curriculum changes could add to the problem, he said.

"In 2012, all graduates have to have four years of core classes to graduate, leaving only a small amount of time for electives, if they're lucky," Limberios said.

Harry Brady, business representative of the Ohio & Vicinity Regional Council of Carpenters, said the workers who come to him from Sandusky High School and EHOVE are valuable.

"There's always a need for motivated and enthusiastic people to get involved in all aspects of the trades," he said. "Students from those schools come with motivation and basic skills. That's what we're looking for."

FMI Corp, a construction-industry consulting and investment banking firm, said the nationwide demand for electricians, pipe fitters and masons "will exceed supply by at least 5 percent."

According to constructionchallenge.com, the industry plans to add 1 million jobs -- but instructors wonder who will fill them.

"If students aren't familiar with these fields, how are they going to know if the work is for them or not?" Limberios said. "Only 14 percent of college graduates get jobs in their chosen field. College is not the best investment for everyone."

Perkins Schools superintendent Jim Gunner said he doesn't disagree.

There is a growing demand for adults with experience in the skilled trade areas, he said. But financial and political pressures have forced districts to rely on other venues for these programs.

Several area superintendents admitted tight budgets and "core class" requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act pushed industrial technology programs out of schools.

Gunner, who also held the reigns in the Bryan School district, said the elimination of these programs could fall into one or all three of the following categories: financial cutbacks, state testing programs and the emergence of career centers.

"The No Child Left Behind (Act) and state testing programs put greater emphasis on the core curriculum," he said. "As a result, more district money was placed on intervention programs to support all students in the core curriculum at the detriment of programs like the skilled trades."

Gunner said when career centers like EHOVE became stronger in the skilled trades area, local school districts that were struggling to make ends meet were able to phase out their in-house programs and send students elsewhere to cut costs.

Huron and Berlin-Milan schools also phased out skilled trades programs, and Port Clinton is contemplating whether to nix its program when the technology instructor retires. Bellevue, Margaretta and Clyde still work the programs into the curriculum, but they're not as visual as they once were, and there are fewer instructors.

Limberios and Watson said the challenge is overcoming society's view that blue-collar trades offer less status, money and chance for advancement than white-collar jobs.

"It's simply not true," Limberios said. "There are union workers out there fresh out of high school making more than college graduates. That's why the programs we're giving them here are so important. We give them a leg up on the other guy."

EHOVE electricity instructor Chuck Oder said the economy dictates demand in certain areas, but certified skilled tradesmen can find work with minimal effort.

"Our students are 80 percent more likely to finish a post-secondary program in their area of expertise because of the education they received at the high school level," he said.

Limberios said education doesn't fit into a "one-size-fits-all" category.

"You don't have to go to college to succeed," Brady said. "Part of these programs is to equip those people who don't necessarily want to go to college and supply them with skills so they can be marketable. By limiting the career courses, the industry's losing a lot of kids who'd be great skilled workers."