President's Column

Wednesday, December 6

Rewarding, good-paying careers await hands-on workers

For today’s and the next generation’s hands-on workers, it’s an exciting time to be a job seeker in Washington state.

That’s because as many as 740,000 good-paying jobs in the state’s manufacturing sector are open. In central Washington, careers in manufacturing pay an average annual wage of $44,398 to more than $52,000, according to the state Employment Security Department.

These are jobs that often require a trade certificate or a two-year degree.

Filling all those hands-on jobs means we must rethink not only how we close the skills gap, but also the “interest gap” for the next generation of builders, welders and makers.

Too often, these good-paying career pathways take a backseat to a four-year degree track. The good news is that both tracks – the trades and a bachelor’s degree – can be equally successful.

I recently traveled to Switzerland with the governor and a group of business leaders and education experts from across the state to look at the country’s successful and robust apprenticeship programs, which are geared toward engaging 16-19-year-olds in meaningful work.

In the Swiss system, young apprentices can easily shift career paths or seek higher education after earning their initial training diploma. It’s focused on options and opportunities – right after graduation and into the future. I heard from several young people who said they were “finished” with the classroom by ninth grade and eager to work with their hands.

The big-picture goal is to find specific ways to improve Washington’s career pathways.

It’s no secret that we lose some of our next generation of workforce – the teenagers who may not want to go down the four-year college path, but aren’t aware of the alternatives. Rural areas are especially hard hit, losing a disproportionate number of young people to metropolitan areas.

This problem is not unique to Washington state, but there are workable solutions that often start with a conversation.

Marty Brown, former executive director for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, said in a recent AWB magazine profile: “We need to get people talking about the importance of machining, manufacturing and advanced manufacturing and all of the jobs out there that 10 years ago people didn’t even think about.”

He went on to emphasize the importance of employers engaging with their local high schools and middle schools to share the positive story of hands-on careers and explain that they look very different today – high tech and clean.

We could not agree more.

We’re moving in the right direction in our K-12 education system with the growing trend of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) schools. Our community and technical colleges also do a great job of partnering with employers to build the local workforce they need to compete nationally and globally.

But, there is room for growth. We need better support for career and technical education programs in the state budget, for example.

Employers can also be more creative in meeting their workforce needs by implementing apprenticeship, internship and externship programs that raise career awareness.

At our annual Manufacturing Summit in October, AWB held a panel discussion focused solely on the role apprenticeships play in attracting the next generation to the workplace. This is an incredible growth area for employers and can be a great tool to build a skilled workforce from the ground up.

Most importantly, we must amplify the conversation between employers, parents, teachers and students, from grade school to high school graduation, about the many rewarding career pathways that await the next generation of designers, builders and dreamers.

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