Clearing the Path To Middle-Skill Careers

Clearing the Path To Middle-Skill Careers
SB 5713 has now passed both the House and the Senate. Proponents argue it would bolster recruitment efforts in middle-skill careers. Photo: Skeeze

The Washington State House this week approved a measure which would boost recruitment efforts in high-demand industry fields, and fill worker shortages voiced by those businesses, especially in construction. On Monday, April 10, the House approved SB 5713 in a 94-3 vote, with one member excused. While the bill drew strong bipartisan support during executive session on the House floor, one opponent of the bill argued the bill ignores a major reason for open worker spots.

On March 6, the measure passed the State Senate in a 47-2 vote. Last month, hospitality and construction sector stakeholders argued the bill would address the need for a greater emphasis of career paths outside of the traditional college-bound path, and fill empty industry slots with skilled workers.

Stambaugh: ‘Exposure Is Key’

During April 10 executive session, State Rep. Melanie Stambaugh (R-25) agreed the bill would better advertise certain industries as viable careers. She is prime sponsor of  HB 1949, which never received a public hearing in committee.

“Just last week I was meeting with local plumbers, and they have shared that they see their workforce aging, and there is not a pipeline of young tradesmen and women who are there to fill those job opportunities in our local communities,” she told colleagues.

“There are many ways we can address this shortage in our trades workforce,” Stambaugh added, “but this is one element that I believe is important because it increases exposure, and exposure is key especially for our young students to say ‘I didn’t know that this trade was an option and I want to maybe someday participate in that occupation.'”

Under SB 5713, the Department of Commerce would administer a new Skilled Worker Outreach, Recruitment, and Career Awareness Training Program, which would award matching public-private grants for businesses to expand their skilled worker training awareness programs.

Prospective grant recipients would be required to already have one such opportunity, which includes apprenticeships, or be developing one. They also must describe in their application how the grant money would increase enrollment in those programs.

State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46) was also supportive of the measure. “We have a construction and allied trades worker shortage in the state of Washington and this bill recognizes that in order to fill those positions, we need to expand the outreach and recruitment efforts for our really terrific training (and) apprenticeship programs,” he said. “It’s a matter of making sure people know including high school students that those programs are there and what the options are.”

He added, “This bill…requires the grantees to put up $2 for every dollar the state puts in, it has strong accountability measures to make sure that the investments are actually working in recruiting and training skilled workers, so I commend this for passage to address the problem.”

Considering Other Hiring Barriers 

State Rep. Vincent Buys (R-42), however, rose in opposition to the bill, as it does little to address why many workers are turned away from the industry. “Back home in my district, I’ve got a neighbor, and he owns a construction company, he does roofing. He came to me this summer and said…’I am having a terrible time finding people to come and work for me, not because there aren’t applicants, but because none of them can pass drug tests.'”

“If we want to actually get people working we need to seriously address the chemical dependency and the alcohol dependency use that our workforce is engaging in, because that is preventing so many of these people from being able to actually get and hold a job,” he added.

Bolstering Recruitment Efforts

Earlier this month, the bill received a brief public hearing in the House Appropriations Committee. On April 1, Michele Willms testified the bill would directly address the 2016 Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America survey which found that 70 percent of Washington construction firms reported having difficulty filling hourly craft job openings, such as for equipment operators or pipe layers.

Willms is Government Relations Associate for AGC of Washington. She told committee members that “to fill this void, industry groups have created direct pathways for young people to secure well-paying jobs that don’t require college degrees.”

According to Willms, AGC and its contractors spent in 2016 “over $22 million on apprenticeship programs and workforce development efforts.” Also, she said AGC’s education foundation distributed $60,000 a year to K-12 institutions and associations encouraging construction career paths, and another $60,000 for students earning two or four-year degrees or certificates from programs in that industry.

Also to address worker shortages, the association has developed BuildWashington.com, which educates “young adults about career opportunities in the construction industry and how to get started in apprenticeship programs,” Willms told committee members.

“SSB 5713 will create the matching grant program to help raise awareness and the opportunities that the different industries have created by their own investments and to get others involved into the industries. We would like to ask the legislature to invest a little more in the non-college bound students,” she added.

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