Addressing Washington’s skilled worker gap

Construction workers discussing plan
As more jobs are left unfilled by skilled workers, representatives from labor, business and the Legislature are offering suggestions on how to fill the openings. Photo: Pixnio

With an aging workforce and new jobs appearing weekly across the state, one thing is clear: Washington needs to double down on preparing to fill close to 740,000 skilled job positions by 2021 or risk leaving them open – and allowing the need for the services they provide to go unmet.

Key stakeholder recommendations include investing more in Career and Technical Education (CTE), informing students in middle and high school of skilled career opportunities in addition to the four-year college path and focusing on connecting high school students with postsecondary education.

Washington Roundtable: Filling the high school to postsecondary gap

Washington will have an estimated 740,000 job openings between 2016 and 2021 due to a lack of qualified workers, according to a report by the Washington Roundtable. In response, the nonprofit set an objective to have 70 percent of Washington students earning a postsecondary degree by 2030.

“Our goal is that Washington students have the opportunity to fill the jobs that Washington companies have created,” said Neil Strege, Vice President of the Washington Roundtable.

Approximately 430,000 of the estimated jobs to be filled will be as a result of individuals who are leaving the workforce. Incremental new jobs make up the remainder of the 740,000.

“About 70 percent of those 740,000 jobs require some postsecondary experience, and the credential necessary to achieve those jobs go up as you go from entry level to pathway to career,” said Strege.

Less than one-third of Washington students who started 9th grade in 2006 went on to earn a postsecondary credential. In order to meet the 70 percent goal, Washington would need to almost double its current postsecondary achievement rate.

“Students have to graduate from high school ready to take on the postsecondary pathway of their choice. We know that achievement gaps start before they start school.

“Getting students through the K-12 system and graduating with skills to go beyond that pathway is priority number one,” Strege said.

Washington’s high school graduation rate and postsecondary graduation rate have gone up over time, he added, but the percentage of students who go from high school to college has stayed relatively flat.

“We are looking to reengage students who don’t go from high school to postsecondary. Our message to students is to choose the path and job category right for you and…right for that job.”

 Rep. Jim Walsh: Fund career and technical ed

State Rep. Jim Walsh (R-19) told Lens the state should focus more on CTE to address skill gaps.

“We have a problem with skilled trades because jobs are going unfilled and no one has the training to do it. We are funding more money through CTE, primarily through the two-year college system, and that is the tool that I think will be best to fill that gap.”

Training more people at the community college level requires more money in the system, however.

“We are bringing parity to funding programs at two-year schools in the way that similar training programs in educational departments are funded at the four-year schools.”

Presidents from schools such as Grays Harbor College and Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake are already taking great steps, he added, where the presidents of those institutions are coordinating locally with trade unions and employers.

“The Legislature needs to promise those presidents that want funding for their programs that as long as they show us that they are market-responsive, we will happily write the check to help fund that.”

Business: Rebranding the industry

In the business sector, employers have noticed a need for a focused approach on training programs and outreach.

According to a Home Improvement Research study, 70 percent of remodelers indicated they were

experiencing a job shortage, and 33 percent said they were experiencing an average of 3.9 weeks in delays

for new projects. There are 158,000 unfilled construction sector jobs across the country, according to the

Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In response, the Home Depot Foundation announced this month that it would spend $50 million on training 20,000 skilled men and women to fill the skilled worker pipeline by 2028.

Wendy Hutchinson, Vice President of Public Affairs for Millennium Bulk Terminals (MBT) said the company has worked with local school districts to help rebrand the industry. This outreach includes taking part in construction fairs to help junior and high school students get acquainted with the trades.

“I think it’s important that the state recognized that construction jobs are important,” she told Lens. Even though the jobs can be temporary, “they still provide a living for people as they move from one construction job to the next.”

Hutchinson added that MBT has placed importance on preparing for the next generation’s workforce.

To assist with the construction of its facility, MBT signed a Project Labor Agreements (PLA) with the Longview/Kelso Building and Construction Trades Council which allows labor to train apprentices as they work on the export terminal.

“It’s all privately funded; tax payers are not footing the bill to do that. But if labor unions don’t have big projects, they won’t take on new apprenticeships and do training.

 “We are committed to using labor members on our project. We look forward to the day we can contribute to the next generation’s workforce.”

Labor: Partnering with academia

Mike Bridges, President of the Longview/Kelso Building and Construction Trades Council, told Lens that local school districts have worked with the Building and Construction Trades to allow labor members to showcase what the construction sector and other industries have to offer.

“Instead of just cycling through or catching students in classes or at lunch time, they set aside meeting time for kids and parents to ask questions and see what the trades have to offer.”

He added that many parents like himself are already thinking about student debt and how their children could get an education while working so that they don’t have debt when they finish.

“It starts the conversation for them to plan for something even if it’s not to get into the construction trades. It gets the mindset on other options out there…other than four-year institutions.”

Bridges added that there may be a misconception that there is a skills gap and not enough training to resolve it.

“All our programs can grow with the demand…it’s not that we don’t have people applying; we only start people we can keep busy. The opportunities are the only things that stop us from doing more.”

Bridges added that students have been told over the past 15 or 20 years that they would be lucky to make minimum wage if they don’t prepare for a traditional college path.

“We are trying to change the narrative that construction can be a secondary option, when it could actually be your primary option.”

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