It’s not even a debate any more: there’s an unprecedented shortage of skilled workers in America. Everyday jobs go unfilled because of a lack of qualified candidates. Looking ahead, demand for quite a few of the skilled jobs that require apprenticeships or long on-the-job training are expected to grow or at least hold steady over the next eight years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This doesn’t just affect businesses: the shrinking base of these jobs also affects the middle class as these jobs have traditionally been well paying and stable. The average hourly rates for tool and die makers and electricians in manufacturing are around $25 to $28 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers in unions often make even more. Typical UAW skilled trades workers at FCA, Ford and GM make over $34 an hour.
Why is this happening? There are multiple answers. Trained, skilled workers are retiring and employers are not investing in training as they used to. Union density is on the decline and one of the largest drivers of workplace training has been organized labor. Many families who can afford college push their high school graduates toward a four-year college instead of vocational programs in manufacturing or construction.
For solutions, many are looking at labor unions and collective bargaining as models of going forward. Many union members in manufacturing already have access to skilled trades jobs through their negotiated union contracts which often address apprenticeships and certification.
In addition, unions are involved in crafting innovative programs where they partner with others to identify training needs and offer programs to workers in targeted industries. One example is the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) formed by the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and aerospace companies in Washington State. The program provides on-the-job and classroom training for skilled trades jobs to current workers and workers who are looking to hire into the aerospace industry. The AJAC program for an aircraft mechanic requires 6,000 hours of specific on-the-job training over three years as well as college courses. Graduates gain a journey person card attesting to their skill and credits toward a college Associate Degree. Washington State funded the program’s startup and local governments also support the program.
AJAC is just one example of how unions, employers and government can work together to create smart, innovative and rewarding programs to prepare our workforce for the future. Not only do they work, they provide a model for other programs on a larger scale.