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Job Without Glitter May Be Gold — Skilled ‘Blue-Collar’ Workers Get Top Dollar

Think you have to earn a college degree to collect a hefty paycheck? Think again. A work-force shortage is driving up demand – and salaries – for skilled workers in “blue-collar” trades within the construction, automotive, health-care and service industries.

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From Richmond Times-Dispatch RICHMOND, VA

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AKRON, OH — Think you have to earn a college degree to collect a hefty paycheck? Think again.

A work-force shortage is driving up demand – and salaries – for skilled workers in “blue-collar” trades within the construction, automotive, health-care and service industries.

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts a 12.3 percent shortage of workers in skilled trades during the next six years. That number is expected to increase over the next two decades as older workers reach retirement age and fewer young people enter these professions.

Another factor, says Walter Kiwala, economics professor at Strayer University, is our nation’s poorly performing public school system that continues to fail when it comes to teaching basic skills.

“There’s a continual decline of educational attainment in the United States. The results we’re getting after 12 years of primary education are just not very good,” Kiwala said. “Those pieces of paper conferred don’t necessarily mean people have learned skills. People are not ‘learning how to learn.’ So, globally, we’re not going to be able to compete in areas that require workers to learn more demanding work skills.”

Even so, more young people today are attending college than at any other time in our nation’s history. And, as more students choose college over trade schools, companies report they’re having a harder time finding qualified workers to fill blue collar positions. The demand for a more technically skilled work force is pushing up wages and forcing employers to redefine their recruitment efforts.

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“Parents want their kids to go to college and become computer technicians,” said Everett Spence, collision center manager at Whitlow Chevrolet in Virginia. “They can’t see any need for their child to become a mechanic. The blue-collar trades have been pushed aside.”

Few schools now offer automotive training, because it’s cost prohibitive, says Spence, adding that it costs more than $2 million to outfit a learning lab for such a program.

Local automotive shops, however, are faced with a potential crisis as they find it harder to fill open positions with qualified technicians. To address the shortage, they’re banding together to start a new two-year associate’s degree program through J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, a local community college which features automobile technology collision repair.

Private industry will fund the new program, because state monies are not available. High school students attending a local technical center can sign up for classes this fall. The program may later be expanded to a community college campus.

The construction industry is another shortage area. “A stigma has been associated with some blue-collar type-jobs,” said Kiwala. “And, that’s certainly the case for construction-contractor jobs. Most parents want their child to have more of an office job.”

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The perception that building-trade classes in high school are for lower performing students has caused many young people to overlook professions in the construction industry. Associated General Contractors predicts a shortage of 250,000 skilled workers each year.

“The parents say, `Someone else’s kid can become the plumber. My kids are going to Virginia Tech.’ But the truth is, you can make a lot more money as a plumber or an electrician than you might make as a programmer in some places,” said Ron Laux, vice president of the Community College Workforce Alliance. “People absolutely don’t realize that they can have a good quality of life and make a very good living doing some of these jobs that were written off as being for those who were [lower performing students] in high school.”

Electricians, plumbers, heating and air-conditioning, and masonry workers all continue to see declines, said Jessi Ray, assistant manager of Labor Finders of Virginia, a temporary employment agency that places applicants in the construction and service industries. “[Our skilled division is] having a really hard time in certain areas like drywall finishers, anything dealing with sheetrock and masonry.”

Some contractors are now hiring immigrant help to fill shortages, because they can’t find enough workers in the American labor pool.

Another area of increased demand is nursing. Hospitals, nursing homes and home-health-care agencies continue to experience a dwindling pool of qualified workers. Many, like Westminster- Canterbury-Richmond, have started their own training programs, hoping to entice graduates to stay on after they’ve completed their education.

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Westminster-Canterbury will begin recruiting for certified nursing assistants and licensed practical nurses this fall in preparation for the opening of a new 68-apartment assisted living facility there.

Other lesser skilled workers, like housekeepers, restaurant workers and construction laborers are also needed, due to the fluidity of the market. “I do have a hard time with [hospitality workers and housekeepers], because you have to have the right kind of people,” said Ray.

Copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.

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