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Businesses say vocational lapse is hurting workforce

    Manufacturers and contractors are walking a delicate balance these days. On one hand they want to be able to land the big projects. On the other they’re worried about having enough skilled people to do the job.
    Today’s concern about good jobs is becoming tomorrow’s concern about good workers.
    “There’s a drought of up-and-coming vocational workers,” said Jonathan Ferry, the economic development director of Granite City. “Every time I go and talk to our manufacturers, they’re like, ‘We don’t know where we’re going to get workers’.”
    The dichotomy of present and future workforce needs is exacerbated by the state itself, which no longer finances education the way it did. Some electives, like vocational education, are simply not being offered enough.
    “We’ve been forced to step into the breach and take up some of the slack,” said Tim Garvey, chief executive officer of the Southern Illinois Builders Association. Around 15 years ago, his organization began a series of Construction Industry Career Expos, which are today conducted for high school students twice a year, once each in Southern and Southwestern Illinois, to encourage young people to enter building fields.
    In that expo, trades unions offer hands-on booths and exhibits appealing to a wide variety of vocations, from carpentry to crane operation.
    “They’re getting very creative in simulating jobs in construction,” Garvey said of the trade expo participants.
    Some 1,000 students attended the Southwestern Illinois Expo held in recent years in Collinsville. Next year, the event will be held at the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds in Belleville.
    Garvey, who sits on multiple pension boards, says it’s easy to anticipate the coming shortfall: The average age of workers in those pension plans is around 40. And that number is growing older with time.
    Couple the aging workforce with the frustrated workforce — those people who are simply leaving vocational careers for lack of work — and you’ve got a real problem, he said.
    The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that by 2022 the United States will fall short by 11 million the necessary number of workers with postsecondary education, including 6.8 million workers with bachelor’s degrees, and 4.3 million workers with a postsecondary vocational certificate, some college credits or an associate’s degree.
    Ferry said vocational work is no longer a romantic aspiration for young people — or their parents, who are telling children that manufacturing is not a viable career path. As a result, kids think in terms of college, but not necessarily technical school.
    That notion belies the facts, Ferry contends.
    “We need toolmakers, electricians, mechanics, machinists, and if you look at some of the most successful educational systems in the world, one of them is Switzerland,” he said. “Seventy percent of their students go into vocational programs. Only 20 percent go to college, and they have one of the healthiest economies, arguably, in the world. They attribute that to their workforce.”
    Ferry thinks there is an opportunity to create a workforce base locally that will become a magnet to potential manufacturers, but it’s up to the region’s leadership to move that direction.
    “As other places say, ‘We don’t have the workers,’ maybe (businesses) will come here. If we can make this a hub for manufacturing operations, it will support our existing manufacturers and it will increase our educational attainment rates.”

    People stuck in lower-wage jobs because of a lack of skills should be trained or encouraged to learn the trades, he said.
    “Maybe they can become a welder and make $50,000 a year,” Ferry said. “Toolmakers can make up to $100,000, right here in Granite, maybe not right out of college.”
    Many of the industrial jobs are now computer-driven, which appeals to younger people, he said.
    Bruce Holland, chief executive officer of Swansea-based Holland Construction Services, agrees there is a basic concern about having vocations in place down the road.
    “Right now, we’re not experiencing a shortage (locally), but we do have concerns that we do have an aging workforce, and we’re not finding enough younger people — recruits — to come in to work in the construction industry. I think that most people think their kids should be prepared to go to college, but we’re not finding enough of them encouraging their children to go into the construction industry.”
    The shortages may be felt during large construction projects in future years, he said.
    “What’s happened is the local construction industry is a little bit slow,” Holland said. “We had some bigger projects like the Prairie State Energy Park, ConocoPhillips (the Phillips 66 refinery), and Granite City (U.S.) Steel, that have been completed.”
    Because those jobs have finished, some of the workforce — particularly those who travel from town to town with construction — have moved on. Some workers are leaving for booming work sites in places like Texas and North Dakota, both of which are enjoying huge oil-related surges.
    That leaves the potential for future shortages on large-scale, local projects, Holland said.
    “We haven’t really seen a decline in the number or availability of subcontractors, but we’re working with some companies right now that probably have more concern with joint venturing on projects, where they’ll have a shortage of some of the construction trades, primarily electricians and plumbers and sheet metal workers,” he said.
    Holland noted there are three substantial regional projects in the works that will tap the manpower, including two hospital projects in O’Fallon and a $400 million construction project at Monsanto in Chesterfield, Mo..
    “We haven’t hit the shortage yet, but it could happen in the future,” Holland said.
    In an effort to head off some of the problem, Congressman Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, said he supported H.R. 803, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a compromise between the House-passed SKILLS Act (H.R. 803) and the Senate committee-passed Workforce Investment Act of 2013 (S. 1356). It is the first time the Workforce Investment Act has been reauthorized since its original passage in 1998. The president signed it in July.
    “Too many Americans are out of work even though there are available jobs and employers actively looking to fill those jobs,” Davis said. “So it’s the responsibility of Congress to update our workforce development system to break down the barriers facing unemployed Americans and allow them the opportunity to obtain the training they need to qualify for jobs available right now.”
    Among other things the act repeals 15 workforce development programs, deemed to be ineffective; requires governors, in consultation with local leaders, to designate regional areas that take into consideration existing labor market areas and economic development regions; provides more direct a access to training; and requires the secretary of labor to conduct an independent evaluation of all workforce development programs and activities at least once every four years.
    Construction firms added jobs in 39 states from July 2013 to July 2014 and in 34 states from June to July, according to an analysis of the most recent data by the Associated General Contractors of America. Association officials said the employment gains are good news, but that the pipeline of skilled craft workers, supervisors and other employees appears to be emptying rapidly.
    “The overall trend in construction employment has been very consistent in 2014, with more than three-fourths of states adding jobs each month on a year-over-year basis,” said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist. “However, growing numbers of contractors say they are having trouble finding skilled workers or subcontractors that can supply such workers.”

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