June 2, 2015 by

Article originally published in Summer 2015 edition of B2B.

Tim McGill used to tag along with his dad to various job sites. He liked watching the cement masons mix, pour, and work the mixture into a heavy, viscous mass before swirling it over cracks and crevices to a smooth finish—pretty cool stuff to a little guy.

McGill was 7 years old when his father, Tim Sr., started McGill Restoration, a structural concrete repair, masonry repair, and waterproofing company. At 15, he started working for his dad in the field. He labored on commercial and industrial facilities for the next seven years until earning a construction engineering degree from the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

McGill and his older brother, Rich, now own the company their father started. They’re busy—that’s the good news. But a virtual sign constantly hovers over the company’s Grebe Street location in Florence:

Help Wanted.

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“We’re always hiring,” says McGill, who pays what he calls very competitive wages.  “Our company has been around 30 years and finding people who want to be a craftsman their entire life and dedicate themselves to a trade has always been tough. But it seems to get tougher every year.”

Contractors across America echo McGill’s frustrations. The numbers bear witness. A survey conducted last fall by the Associated General Contractors of America shows 83% of firms nationwide report difficulty finding craft and trade workers: electricians, plumbers, tile setters, welders, carpenters, bricklayers, roofers—the list goes on and on. Midwest businesses reported even greater problems filling positions. Amazingly, all 18 companies surveyed in Nebraska by the AGCA said they had job openings they couldn’t fill.

“I have personally been involved in projects that turned away from Omaha because we couldn’t provide the skilled workers that they need,” says Bill Owen, board chairperson of the Downtown Improvement District.

Owen’s full-time job, however, puts him in a position to do something about the skilled labor shortage. As associate vice president for effectiveness and engagement at Metropolitan Community College, Owen helps guide an ambitious $90 million job-training expansion.“It’s a huge project for us,” he says.

The first iron beams currently rising from the dirt on the south end of Metro’s Fort Omaha location signal the beginning of three buildings being constructed simultaneously. When it becomes operational (hopefully in late 2017), the complex will provide more space and state-of-the-art equipment for career and technical training—a modern moniker for the kind of training once called vo-tech, or vocational education. The buildings will house an academic skills center, a center for advanced and emerging technology, and a construction education center, effectively consolidating all the trades and technology programs at the main campus in North Omaha.

“There’s not a career that technology doesn’t play a role in,” says Owen, explaining the importance of Metro’s new advanced and emerging technology center. “The laptop computer is part of the tool pouch for the trades or crafts person.”

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Blue-collar trades like welding or pipefitting, once considered about as contemporary and relevant as a VHS tape, are not only in demand, they have been re-booted to add electronic brains to the traditional brawn. Metro actually has a welding machine that requires no welding rod, no flame, and no spark, giving the student a completely virtual welding experience.

The 100,000-square-foot construction education center will feature a large, shared space for students to work on projects such as building modular homes. Sections will include electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and carpentry work.

“Metropolitan Community College has always been here serving the career and technical student needs,” says Owen. “It’s now much more apparent to other members of the community just how important that role is.”

Metro’s vision captured the attention of a very powerful member of Omaha’s community— the Knights of AKSARBEN Foundation, the area’s premier philanthropic organization consisting of a broad swath of business and civic leaders. Now in its 120th year, the Knights of AKSARBEN has evolved into a facilitator of education, focusing its scholarship largesse on high school students who often don’t have doors opened for them. When Metro announced its skilled-trades expansion, AKSARBEN saw an opening to expand its brand.

Championed by reigning King of AKSARBEN Michael Yanney, and nurtured by the board of governors, the foundation recently launched a pilot post-secondary scholarship initiative to funnel deserving students to Metro’s skilled trades and technology offerings.

“The AKSARBEN Scholars Career Connectors program is an effort to hit two needs within our community,” explains foundation president Jonathan Burt. “One is the need for more skilled and technical workers as well as a need to address the high pockets of poverty that we know still exist in our Omaha community.”

Working with current scholarship partner the Horatio Alger Association and a new partner, Avenue Scholars Foundation of Omaha, AKSARBEN hopes to award at least 150 two-year scholarships worth up to $8,000 by this fall. Career Connectors has also partnered with the Iowa West Foundation and Iowa Western Community College, a union that’s likely to add 30 to 35 students to the effort.

“Avenue Scholars, embedded in seven schools, identifies students who come from a high-needs background but who have a defined interest in a career path,” says Burt. “Those students can then apply for a Career Connectors scholarship.”

Burt and Avenue Scholars President Dr. Kenneth Bird, both educators by profession, understand the mindset of 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds. They know a student may go to Metro with one career in mind and then choose a different path, perhaps going into the distribution, management, or business end of things. That’s to be expected. And it doesn’t matter whether a student uses the scholarship money to take a six-week certification course, a six-month course or to acquire a two-year associate’s degree. “As long as the student exits the program with a skill set needed for a quality career, one that can open them up to a middle class lifestyle, then (the program) will be a success,” says Burt.

Through the generosity of the Knights of AKSARBEN and the innovation of Metropolitan Community College, scholarship winners will discover what many young adults haven’t: a career in the trades can mean money. “Department of Labor data, not self-reporting data, show our graduates in the construction trades, just one to two years out from our program, earn between $36,000 and $39,000 a year,” says Owen, pointing to scads of graphs and spread sheets. In the trades, experience counts more than education, leading Owen to pose, “Imagine what your salary will be when you’re 10 years out.”

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Manual labor can also mean longevity. Those same Labor Department numbers project a 27 percent increase in skilled labor jobs through 2020. Certainly the big-ticket building boom on both sides of Missouri—the $400 million Google project in Council Bluffs, the $1.2 billion StratCom headquarters in Bellevue, and the $323 million cancer center in Omaha—define a golden age in the Midlands. People who do have the skills are already employed.]

So what’s the problem? Why aren’t more young adults going into the trades? The explanation
has many parts, some more sociological than economic.

“The shortage actually started 20 to 30 years ago—long before the Great Recession,” according to Dr. Eric Thompson, an economics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “As we become more of a service economy, fewer and fewer children have parents who were blue-collar workers. People did more of their own home repairs back then and they tinkered with cars. Young people were picking up skill sets as they watched their parents and transitioning to those occupations.”

Thompson also points out that young adults are staying single longer now, making them more inclined to take a chance on a career, “that may be less steady but potentially more exciting and rewarding.” The cyclical nature of construction and manufacturing, so vulnerable to downturns, makes young people hesitant, he says.

Another part of the equation—a big one—involves education. “Those of us in the education community have been steering teenagers toward four-year degrees,” says Thompson. Latching onto that explanation, Bill Owen adds, “It isn’t just the high schools. In many cases, it’s the parents who feel, ‘Well, my child is going to aim higher than a trade job and is going to aim for a profession.’”

As someone who came up through the trades before parlaying his associate’s degree into a master’s degree in education from Iowa State, Owen sees the pendulum swinging the other way. “These jobs were looked down on in the past. And now people are really beginning to admire and respect those who can do things with their hands because it’s almost a lost art. Perception has changed.”

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