Shortage of skills

The reason behind Alaska's lack of skilled labor

Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Construction company owner Terry Miller says young people just don't want to run machines and work with their hands anymore.

"Those jobs just aren't attractive now. When I was younger it was a good thing to be a fireman or a laborer and now it's just different," said Miller, owner of Miller Construction. "Nowadays young people want to be in sports management and sports medicine and more glamorous jobs."

If people don't want to earn their livings by working with their hands, who will do the work traditionally associated with skilled trades workers?

In five years the United States will be short 60,000 skilled trades workers, said Tony Martin, an instructor in the Technical Center at the University of Alaska Southeast. Alaska is also on the verge of a skilled labor crisis due to a lack of workers who can fill vacancies as the majority of the trade labor force hits retirement over the next 15 years, according to a recent study from the Alaska Human Resource Investment Council. The current typical age for trade workers ranges from 40 to 47.

"We want the people who have experience and those are the older people," Miller said. "It's kind of a catch-22. You can't get a job when you're young without experience and you can't get experience without a job."

The trades are not attracting young people, area tradesmen said. Lower wages, the stigma of working a trade and a lack of work ethic are among the reasons cited for why those ages 18 to 33 are not entering skilled trades.

The results are more than just slower building projects and a longer customer line at the auto-body shop.

"In order to keep and attract business in Alaska it is necessary to have good schools, a business-friendly environment and basic infrastructure," said Alice Galvin, chairwoman of the human resource council.

"We can't have good schools without good teachers," she said. "A business-friendly environment is impossible without educated, trained workers. Basic infrastructure cannot be built without skilled labor. Alaska's work force is the common denominator that makes economic development possible."

Bill Wildes, owner of Sam's Auto Body, said the salary a mechanic enjoyed 30 years ago has dropped drastically over the years. That deters young people looking to get into the trades.

"What used to pay really well, the insurance companies now control," Wildes said. "To make the money now that I was making 25 years ago, I'd have to work twice as long on twice as many cars."

The average salary for trade workers just starting out is between $20,000 and $29,000 per year, said Jim Williams, owner of North Pacific Erectors.

The cost of living in Juneau averages $38,000 per year, according to the Runzheimer Cost of Living Standards.

Williams said although pay for trades such as iron working is making a comeback, the lowering wages in the trades over the past 20 years came from municipalities ignoring infrastructure and postponing building and renovation projects. Additionally, Miller of Miller Construction said advanced machinery has replaced trade workers in some areas of construction.

Further, unlike Europe where trade apprentices are revered, skilled tradesman in the United States are demeaned and looked on as uneducated, said Martin of UAS.

A great deal of skill is necessary for this work, he said. For construction and automotive trades, upper-level math, reading and physics are required, he said.

"These are the same requirements of electrical engineers," he said. "But people still look at trades as something to fall back on when they fail at something else."

In addition to schooling, trades workers get on-the-job training and have to keep up with the details of the latest technology, Martin said.

Gordon Johnson, owner of Doug's Auto Body, said younger people stay away from trades because of the risks involved.

"It's a filthy job, there's no money in it and it's unhealthy," he said. "You're dealing with massive amounts of dust and paint and you're breathing that in 10 hours a day. And they think, 'Why do that when I can get a cushy tech job making $100,000 a year and barely make $30,000 at this.' "

Williams said even those daring to get into the profession lack the work ethic of an older generation. He said in the past two years only 10 people have made it through his iron-working apprenticeship program.

Additionally, Wildes said he recently fired most of the staff at his auto body shop because of a lack of training and pride in a job well done.

"Americans are a little spoiled and shy away from actual work," Wildes said. "You can't find people willing to take responsibility. ...They don't understand taking pride in your work and loving what you do. ... There's a real lack of leadership out there and we're really floundering because of it."

But Martin of UAS said it's not a lack of work ethic in new tradesmen but lack of focus and direction. He said in his experience it was easy to stay at a trade for a month and leave when he'd made enough to survive the following month. When the money ran out, he said, he could always find new trade work somewhere. Now, with a family to support, he said there is incentive to work toward the security of a steady position.

But Williams said the situation with skilled labor slowly is improving with the re-introduction of labor unions into workers' lives. Josette Duran, co-owner of Duran Construction, said in her business young skilled trade workers were rare but she is "starting to see some good people come out now."

Martin said programs like the co-operative learning classes with Juneau-Douglas High School students and instructors in the UAS Tech Center are helping young people learn the trades early. Also, he said UAS may start a local chapter of Automotive YES, a nonprofit group sponsored by automotive companies and subsidiaries, aimed at promoting the benefits of trades to teen-agers.

Though enrollment for trade training at UAS is down across the board, Martin said he is confident the trades will make a comeback. Ultimately, Martin said it will take educating people early.

"These jobs are just sitting there and I think ultimately people will start looking at the trades in a different way and it will turn around and people will come back to the trades," he said. "And if not, when the lights start flickering and the water doesn't run, cars aren't getting fixed and projects are sitting there not being built, people will start waking up and they'll have to look at trades in a different way."

*****

Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.



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