Aging workforce has employers hunting for the next generation of skilled tradesmen

Nov 21, 2014

With tours of local businesses, Michigan Works is attempting to connect high school students with careers in the skilled trades.
Credit Aaron Selbig

As Michigan continues to dig its way out of an economic recession, employers are looking for workers. But in skilled trades like construction and manufacturing, the next generation of workers has yet to come forward.

“Now it’s a situation where the economy’s turned around, there’s a lot of building going on and there’s more work than there is workers,” said Chris Webb, general manager of Team Bob’s Plumbing and Heating in Traverse City.

For the last couple of years, Webb has been on a never-ending search for plumbing and heating technicians. He’s tried hiring a national headhunting firm and has even resorted to recruiting workers from his competitors.

It’s the same story in construction – where contractors in northern Michigan sometimes have to go to Grand Rapids to find skilled laborers – and in manufacturing, the field that used to be the bedrock of Michigan’s economy.

'Talent tours'

Michigan Works is attempting to do something about the problem. They’re leading groups of high school students on “talent tours” of local businesses so they can get a clearer idea of what various potential careers might look like.

Jim Udell recently led a group of Bellaire High School students on a tour of the Anchor Lamina manufacturing plant. The 165,000 square-foot plant has been one of the area’s largest employers for generations.

Udell just celebrated his 35th anniversary at the plant. He proudly notes that his daughter works in the quality control department. She’s the third generation of Udells to work in the building.

Udell says it’s been about a year since he’s had high school students come visit the plant.

“It’s kind of nice to see them back in here again,” he said. “The manufacturing community … it’s here and ready for some new, younger workers.”

The Manufacturing Institute says the average age of manufacturing workers is 56 – while there are more than 600,000 open jobs across the country.

So where are the younger workers? And why do they seem uninterested in skilled trades?

The push to go to college

Aaron Sue Meyer, youth advisor for Michigan Works, said that at some point along the line, skilled labor got a bum rap.

“You know, we’ve promoted college for so long and not everybody is cut out for college,” she said. “(It) might not be exactly what they want to do but (they) may be doing it because that’s the expectation from parents.”

Webb said young people who are interested in the trades tend to gravitate toward high-tech jobs.

“The kids today are so geared and focused towards working with computers (and) gaming, that type of thing,” said Webb. “And I think there’s a stigma with being in the trades. It’s perceived as hard work and it’s perceived as low-paying work.”

Money to be made

There’s plenty of training available in northern Michigan for skilled trade work. Northwestern Michigan College has training programs in construction and welding, among other trades, and the Career Tech Center in Traverse City trains high school students in dozens of careers, including manufacturing.

Bellaire High School senior William Gantner was impressed by what he saw on the tour of the Anchor Lamina plant, although he says his number one choice would be to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a heating and air-conditioning technician.

“There’s a high demand for it,” said Gantner. “There’s always work for them. They make good money.”

Webb said in some parts of the country, heating and air technicians can make $100,000 a year.