#14 – Inside Our Industry – The Unnecessary Crisis in the American Workforce – Part 2

Posted on | Inside Our Industry

Last week we shared the first part of an article that looks at the shortage of skilled trades workers. This week we are posting the rest of the article that looks at solutions that may offer a way to curb that shortage.

The Unnecessary Crisis in the American Workforce – Part 2
Ken Rusk, AUG 28, 2020, IndustryWeek.com

One way blue-collar industries are trying to mitigate shortages is by recruiting women, whether it’s reaching out to high schools, Sunday schools, or the Girl Scouts. More and more employers are offering flexible hours so moms can be with their children at school drop-off and pickup times, as well as twelve-hour Saturday and Sunday shifts that allow one parent to work while the other takes care of the children. Fortunately, technology has, in many cases, made brains more important than brawn. In Virginia, Barbara Gaskins is the lone woman in her 17-person rotation that operates a CRMG cantilever, a 70-foot-tall machine that reaches over four sets of railroad tracks to load and unload 500 boxes a day, some weighing 30 tons. Gaskins does it all in an office, controlling the action with two joysticks and 30 buttons.

The current pandemic will only increase the need for skilled workers. Ramping up production of personal protective equipment, but also more sophisticated devices like ventilators and COVID-19 virus and antibody tests, is important. And once a vaccine is ready, production of the literally billions of doses that will be needed is going to necessitate the labor of skilled people who know what they’re doing.

The most promising solution is for local employees to target young people by sponsoring apprenticeships and encouraging high schools to teach practical skills. Remember when every high school offered shop classes where students learned how to hammer a nail, weld a pipe, and fix a car? For many students, this was their first exposure to the kind of hands-on experience that ignited a blue-collar or manufacturing career. A 2019 report by the research arm of the Commercial Real Estate Development Association acknowledges that a declining public-school focus on vocational education has exacerbated a shortage of entry-level workers, and suggests that businesses must do a better job of investing in the training and recruiting of high school students and recent graduates. And according to a comprehensive report published by consulting firm Bain & Company, “If we want everyone’s kid to succeed, we need to bring vocational education back to the core of high school learning.”

Apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and vocational programs at community colleges are all ways young people can be taught blue-collar and manufacturing skills. These are also paths that lead to a successful life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only a third of adults 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and you can’t tell me that the other two-thirds are living in poverty. In fact, I can promise you they are not.

Savvy businesses are demonstrating to prospective employees that skilled entry level jobs in manufacturing, for example, can be the start of a long-term, lucrative career. These efforts can reinvigorate the American dream for a new generation of young people, while helping businesses access the talent and capabilities they need.

At a community or technical college, young people who have already found their passion, whether it’s fixing or building things or soldering two pieces of metal together, can refine their skills. That allows them to do what they love, rather than take courses that don’t interest them and will be forgotten minutes after the final exam. Amazon recently announced it will be spending $700 million to retrain about a third of its workforce in an effort to improve the technical expertise of its entry level coders and data technicians. PayPal founder Peter Thiel has established a fellowship which offers $100,000 apiece to 20 young people each year to skip college and pursue a business idea while being mentored by the Foundation’s network of founders, investors, and scientists. And Apple CEO Tim Cook recently spoke of a “mismatch” between the skills people are acquiring in college and the ones demanded by modern businesses. He noted that about half of Apple’s new hires in 2018 did not have a four-year degree. The current economic turmoil brought on by the pandemic will end, but the growing need for skilled workers will not.

Fortunately, this crisis in the American workforce is also an opportunity for millions of Americans. Does a young person really need a bachelor’s degree to become a web designer, carpenter, welder, or any of a dozen other lucrative professions? The internet makes researching alternatives easier than ever. You want to become a CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) operator? Many CNC operators are trained on the job or as an apprentice, but certificate programs are also offered through vocational schools, community colleges, and commercial trade schools.

There’s a general sentiment that blue-collar workers or manufacturing workers struggle from paycheck to paycheck and are unable to reach financial security for themselves and their families. I can tell you firsthand, this is absolutely untrue. A blue-collar or skilled manufacturing career provides the opportunity to work hard, make a good living, and if you want, maybe even the opportunity to be your own boss. Any blue-collar passion can turn into a business, and in today’s world, the costs of opening your own have never been lower. It’s going to take a long time (if ever) before the supply of carpenters or plumbers or stonemasons is greater than the demand. Law degrees and business majors may be a dime a dozen, but those who know how to operate a saw or a jackhammer, use an excavator, or repair a liquid filling machine are not. According to last year’s Harris poll of blue-collar workers, the vast majority—86%—are happy with their jobs, and 85% believe their lives are headed in the right direction.

For centuries, great men and women have built America from the ground up, mostly with their bare hands. From those early settlers to today’s modern worker, one thing remains consistent — the ability to put down any tool we used, wipe the sweat from our brow, and to revel in what we were called on to create. The demand for skilled laborers is not a passing trend. For every toddler with a smartphone, there is going to be a need for people who know how to do things, build things, to design the most efficient procedures. Smartphones can do a lot, but they can’t oversee manufacturing, motivate a crew, or perform assembly or critical repairs. It’s time to celebrate the blue-collar worker!


Ken Rusk is a blue-collar entrepreneur who runs Rusk Industries in Northwest Ohio.