As a young child, Grady Knight had an aptitude for taking things apart. He may not have necessarily put them back together, but what he did construct was an understanding that he was a hands-on person and learner.
So it was only fitting that he would later go on to pursue a career in the trades, graduating from Northern Illinois University with a master’s degree in industrial management to become a project engineer with Star SU. He started his education by making fixtures, emblems and cutting logos out of metal and now makes multimillion-dollar manufacturing systems.
“I really get satisfaction from making things and seeing the fruits of my labor at the end of the day or end of the month,” Knight said.
A shortage of 600,000 skilled workers such as Knight was reported last year by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, despite a 7.8% unemployment rate. But in a recent study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a deficit of only 80,000 to 100,000 workers was reported.
The study says manufacturers may have openings, but the reason they go unfilled is because companies are too selective in their hiring process and are unwilling to pay competitive wages.
“As the Baby Boomer generation leaves the work force, you no longer have that very large pool of experienced trade workers,” said Dale Belman, a professor in the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University. “There’s a lot of evidence that employers are just not training and they expect people to fit their jobs perfectly.”
Software such as Monster also contributes to the problem, Belman said, by allowing employers to specify requirements in a very exact and narrow way that excludes anyone who doesn’t have all the characteristics required.
But not everyone agrees. Jim Ryan, CEO of Grainger, a distributor of facilities maintenance products, said more companies Grainger works with are in a position where they can’t fill jobs and do train employees themselves.
“What our customers are telling us is that they’re having more and more difficulty finding people with these skill sets,” he said. “If we don’t address this problem, it’s going to be difficult for us to have a sustained economic recovery.”
There is often a misperception about the value of manufacturing and skilled trade jobs, Ryan said. Electricians, plumbers and pipe fitters can earn up to $80,000 a year and welders, HVAC installers and mechanics can earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year, he said.
“These are very good, very well-paying jobs, and I don’t think there’s very good recognition of the value of these careers,” Ryan said.
Dane Burkett, a recipient of Grainger’s Tools for Tomorrow Scholarship currently studying electrical engineering technology at Queensborough Community College, said he believes there is a stigma surrounding the technology field. People see it as less glamorous, he said, and don’t think they will have a nice office, wear a suit or own an amazing car.
“It’s seen more that being a lawyer or doctor, that’s the way to succeed,” he said. “But there are many opportunities out there that can give you the same benefits.”
Ryan said he sees a bright future for those interested in the skilled trades.
“As people are out of work longer and are looking harder to find jobs, I think more and more people are going to see that there are open, well-paying jobs for people that are skilled in the trades,” he said.
Although BCG found the current skills gap to be smaller than believed, it could become more severe as aging workers retire and reshoring and increased exports heighten the labor demand. The average U.S. high-skilled manufacturer is 56 years old.
“Companies have to get involved, as well as educational institutions and the government,” Ryan said. “I think it’s that public-private partnership that really starts driving some more awareness to this issue.”
Knight said the skilled trades can provide students with job security and hands-on learning that might not be readily available in other career paths.
“You open a history book and you see the 1920s and ‘30s, and it’s a dusty workshop and people are getting hurt,” he said. “It’s nothing like that today. It’s hard not to be fascinated by the technology that’s out there.”