The ‘Silver Tsunami’ and Washington’s skilled worker gap

Skilled workers in factory
Stakeholders say the state needs to place more emphasis on career opportunities outside of the traditional college trajectory. Photo: Energy.gov

As the older generation of workers is aging out of skilled jobs, what some refer to as the “Silver Tsunami”, many open positions are being created across Washington state. As a result, stakeholders from the Legislature, academia and the trades are suggesting that the state increase its focus on connecting Washington’s young people and adults with career opportunities outside of the traditional four-year college path.

In his own district, State Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) told Lens that business owners in the Canyon Park bio-tech cluster have indicated a need for kids who are just graduating high school who possess basic skills such as knowing how to solder.

“I think we went as a society too far in the direction of four-year schools and degrees because…kids think that they have to go to college and they have to get a four-year degree to get a good job, and that’s just not the case.”

Palumbo added that there are several great options that do not require a four-year degree, such as Cascadia Community College’s two-year cybersecurity degree, which would allow students to transition into a job at Amazon or another tech company.

“But when it comes to the trades, kids have traditionally been pushed away from that over the last decade or so. We need to get back into that.”

Another problem is colleges turning away students in high-demand fields due to a lack of space, such as at the University of Washington Bothell and Cascadia Community College.

“That is unacceptable and is something that we can fix in the broken pipeline. We have to make sure that we are actually pumping out the right types of workers for the jobs that we actually have; we have to align those two things.”

Palumbo said the state should bring back shop class in a “big, robust way,” so that students who want to work with their hands can gain exposure to different careers that are available to them.

More focus should also be placed on funding and training counselors, he added.

“Not every counselor in the world knows all of the paths that are available. Those counselors have to know what the paths are. That is something we are completely failing at, and I think we need to do better….”

Also important is partnering with companies like Amazon or Microsoft to expand on tech apprenticeship opportunities.

“We need kids in high school having a time to go and do an internship for a quarter at a company and see what that job is like whether it is a job site or…tech company.”

Grays Harbor College (GHC) President Jim Minkler told Lens that stakeholders should spread the word about every career path, and not just those connected to universities.

“I think that stigma (against the trades) is perpetuating one of the biggest myths out there, and that is that if you go to a school and get a four-year degree, it increases your ability to get a good, family-wage sustainable job and that is what you need.”

This may have been true in the 1970s and 1980s, he added, but that is hardly the truth in 2018.

The college uses Burning Glass Technologies analytics to establish where skill gaps exist, however it is challenging to get statistics on positions before they open up.

“What is not being announced right now in the trades is that the positions are filled but will eventually become part of the ‘Silver Tsunami.’ A lot of workers are in their mid-to-late 50s and early 60s and when they retire, there will be no on in the pipeline to replace them.”

To help address this, several community colleges in recent years have allowed the development of four-year degrees by allowing Associate in Applied Science (AAS) degree holders to apply their two years of education towards a four-year Bachelor of Applied Science (BAS).

GHC has also been in conversations with companies such as Sierra Pacific or the Port of Grays Harbor to identify needs for millwrights or asking what the college can offer to help provide training and education for those positions.

It is important to allow business and industry at the table to work with educators, he added, which helps build pathways from high school to technical skill centers.

“We are not doing a good job communicating to students as early as middle school or high school what their options are,” said Minkler. “The sooner we can do that, we keep them engaged and have them think about their options once they leave.”

Aaron McElligott graduated from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 48’s apprenticeship program last year. The apprenticeship lasts five years and includes a boot camp at a training facility and alternating school and work schedules.

“When I was younger people were pushing college pretty hard in school. My dad was an electrician for IBEW, and I knew what kind of money he made with what he did, and I started to look into it.”

McElligott considered options such as Perry Technical Institute but decided that he would be paying more money than he would in a trade apprenticeship where he could get free tuition and get paid to work at the same time.

McElligott said he has zero debt after the process. “My biggest expenses were my work clothes. The apprenticeship program even supplies your first set of tools.”

He added that by the age of 21, he had bought his first house and had already paid off his first truck.

“It gives you a pretty large head start in life compared to trying to go through college and then finding a job afterwards.”

The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA)’s training pool pays for each apprentice’s tuition and books. Graduates are then asked to work another five years in one of the training programs to help train the next round of apprentices.

McElligott now works in the industry on power plants and refineries. Recently, he’s worked at Longview’s Nippon Dynawave paper mill.

He has also been taking additional classes at the union’s training center, which is an affordable option for any graduated apprentice.

“The overall benefit of getting in is that you get a jump start and you get to work with your hands. Our total package is about $70 an hour with a full benefits package and a pretty decent pay scale.”

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