Developing our future workforce in areas that are needed for our regional and economic support is VERY important. I continue to hear from some of our local business leaders and residents about the need to have training in classes in high school or apprenticeship programs for our students. The reasoning behind why such skills of yesterday are in DIRE short supply can be associated to: school budgeting cuts or restrictions in the ‘arts and vo-tech’ areas, federal mandates on schools to push one style of curriculum – steering our kids toward a degree field, less encouragement toward students following desiring these fields, or other reasons which are so numerous it would take another page to get them all down. The fact remains, there is a big push to get our students to higher degree fields in college — now more than ever.
OK. With that being said, please don’t misinterpret my intentions as being against our kids pursuing higher education. That is definately NOT the case, but we need to ENSURE that our kids are 1) given all the options as to ALL employment fields/options and benefits to working in that field, 2) encouraged to take apprenticeship training throughout their high school years in order to provide a guaranteed source of employment immediately out of school, and 3) are recognized for their innovation and committment in blue collar trades as well as those seeking a higher degree at a college or university.
I have been working with several local busiensses wanting to expand or start new ancillary businesses over the last few years. This is one major reason why PCED has been at career fairs over the last few years marketing our area businesses and job opportunities. Workforce development issues, once again, is a trend experienced by many firms over the years. Where are all the skilled workers? We are losing our pool of workers with technical skills. Fewer high schools offer trades courses, fewer kids grow up learning mechanical skills at home or on the farm. It is because of these challenges, the Rural Opportunity Zone legislation was passed as an incentive to our rural communities. It was a tool to help recruit more workforce into the areas to accomodate the growth trend of our western Kansas businesses.
Current reports show that some of the most in demand careers now and in the future do not require a four year degree, but training from technical schools/community colleges, or on the job training. Trade skills in fields such as welding, machining, electronics, drafting/autoCAD, etc. are in demand and will continue to be so in the future. There is also a shortage in CDL drivers in many areas, and the recent oil boom in the Midwest is only growing the demand. With some proactive changes and financial investment to our local schools vocational-technical programs, these learned trades could: 1) have more students working right out of high school, 2) create more business expansion of existing businesses, 3) keep more residents in our rural areas, and 4) strengthen our local economies.
A number of organizations are looking at this issue and how to get people interested in working in careers in skilled trades: economic developers, workforce specialists, schools, manufacturers, etc. There are a number of resources available to assist people looking to change careers. But the first step is educating our youth and residents that there are good careers in manufacturing, and growing opportunities across the country. Not every child is suited to go to college. Nationally, the percentage of students that enroll in a four-year college and don’t finish is around 45%. Imagine the savings if those students were directed to different career paths, with shorter training requirements and considerably less expense. We need to keep this in mind as we look to the future and decide where we want to be, and what we want to be doing.
Jeff Hofaker, PCED executive director
…With thanks to Aaron White (ECC Director) with some format insights