Manufacturers looking to add workers

Jars of baby food pass through the automated production line Beech-Nut in Amsterdam where skilled workers monitor the processes. (Photo submitted)

Editor’s Note: The following is the second in a three-part series on the shortage of skilled workers in the trades and manufacturing. This part focuses on the causes.

Repeated often enough, a mantra can be mesmerizing—everyone should have a four-year college degree to get a well-paying job.

Educators have done “a really good job” convincing people to go to college while “the cost of college is pretty much off the charts,” said Patrick Michel, superintendent of the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

Earnings for jobs requiring technical skills, but with less training time and lower education costs, are starting to outpace those needing four-year liberal arts degrees, he said.

Outstanding student loan debt hit a high of $1.521 trillion the first quarter of this year—an estimated average of $37,000 per graduate—while one in six graduates has debt exceeding income, according to a May 12 MarketWatch article.

“We’ve become a country where people think they need to get a four-year degree” to get a good job when manufacturers are short on employees—3.5 million positions need filling by 2025, said Martha Ponge, director of apprenticeships with the Manufacturers Association of Central New York.

At the same time manufacturing has gotten a bad rap because “we have a lot of parents who saw jobs being shipped overseas and companies closing,” she said.

“Vocational programs have not been as robust as they were 25 years ago,” she added.

Also being hurt by the shortage is the construction industry, especially when politicians are talking about improving infrastructure. The shortfall is nationwide with 72 percent of construction companies unable to find enough qualified workers, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

Construction is by far the fastest growing of industrial sectors in the state—with a 28.4 percent increase predicted from 2014 to 2024, according to “Skilled Trades in New York State,” a June 2016 report by the state Division of Research and Statistics. As with manufacturing, education and training are available.

Younger people’s attitudes and perceptions may also play a role in the shortages. “I think the young kids don’t want to do a hard day’s work,” said Stan Kucel of Kucel Contractors in Gloversville. “They want to sit in front of computers.”

Kucel’s opinion closely matches the results of a study, “Young Adults and the Construction Trades” in of the National Association of Home Builders.

In the NAHB poll of youths aged 18 to 25, those who knew what career they wanted, 16 percent mentioned medical; 12 percent, management/business; 9 percent, technology/information technology; 7 percent, engineering; 6 percent, science or teaching; and 4 percent, marketing, law or media. Only 3 percent wanted construction (2 percent, military).

The pro-construction youths mentioned good pay and useful skills as pluses. Those who expressed little or no chance of choosing construction attributed that to “wanting a less physically demanding job and the notion that construction work is difficult” or wanting an office job.

The youths had varying ideas about what construction jobs paid, but they thought getting at least $75,000 annually was definitely a lure. However, about a quarter of first-line supervisors and some specialties, depending on the state, earn at least $75,000. Overall the top 10 percent of construction workers earn more than $75,000, but the report says experience in construction is the intermediate step to reaching that level.

Then, demographics are also an issue as the American fertility rate—the number of live births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44—declines.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “… the average annual growth rate of 16- to 24-year-olds in the labor force is projected to decline by a significant 1.4 percent. It is expected that, in 2024, the younger age group will constitute 11.3 percent of the labor force, down from its 13.7-percent share in 2014.

“Prime-age workers—those between the ages of 25 and 54—are projected to have a growth rate of 0.4 percent and are expected to make up nearly 64 percent of the labor force in 2024. During the 2014–24 period, the growth of the labor force will be due entirely to population growth, as the overall labor force participation rate is expected to decrease even further by 2024.” The proportion of Hispanics and other non-white ethnic groups is expected to increase but be less than whites.

The labor force makeup is changing since the proportion of younger people is decreasing and not replacing skilled members of the postwar baby boom (those born 1946 to 1964), who are retiring or dying.

The third part of the series will focus on pathways for training for skilled work.

By Kerry Minor

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