For Jessie McGowan it was gardening with her mother. For Alex Pierce it was about finding stable work.
Both recently started over in their careers, and decided to get their welding certificate at Blackhawk Technical College. Without knowing it, both were entering into an industry that is desperate for qualified workers. So desperate that the amount of welding jobs outweighs the number of trained potential employees, and has created a noticeable “skills gap” in not just welding, but other manufacturing jobs and health care positions.
“When we are talking about a skills gap we’re talking about the jobs that are going unfilled because they require technical expertise that people don’t normally have,” Blackhawk Technical College President Tom Eckert said.
Technology and an aging workforce combined to form the gap, and one that educators and employers saw coming, Eckert said.
“We saw it rushing at us in 2006 and 2007,” Eckert said. “We saw that companies had to modernize and become more efficient by having smart systems in order to compete internationally, and we knew those jobs would be more technical than normal.”
As the baby boomers start to retire, more health care professionals will be needed to take care of that aging portion of the population, Eckert said.
From day one both McGowan, 34, and Pierce, 35, said the college emphasized the need for welders and the change in the welding industry.
“I didn’t know there was such a call for welders,” said McGowan, who is in her first semester of the welding program.
She worked in administrative positions for around 10 years until she tried to climb the corporate ladder. She had earned an associates degree in science at Madison Area Technical College (MATC), but without a bachelor’s degree she found out she couldn’t climb very high.
“I was striving over the summer trying to decide which direction to take,” she said. “Go back and try to finish by wildlife ecology degree, or just take a different route altogether.”
She also considered going back into administrative work, but she didn’t like “sitting in a cubicle.”
She was gardening with her mother over the summer when it struck her that she’d like to learn how to weld. She described it as a “light bulb moment.”
Pierce found inspiration from his younger brother, who is also a welder. He had been working on oil rigs for a number of years in Arizona, but the work proved to be unstable.
“As the price of oil went up and down they would lay people off and then hire them back,” he said.
He heard about the welding program at MATC, but it had filled before he was accepted. He eventually was accepted into the welding program at BTC in January, and will take his certification test this semester.
The welding program has grown substantially over the last few semesters at BTC. So much so that welding classes start around 6:30 every morning and don’t end until after 10 every night.
Eventually, Eckert said they would like to build a high-tech manufacturing training facility in Beloit and double the amount of welding students. Plans for the facility are still in the works as the college tries to raise the funds.
Plans to build the facility at the Ironworks Building in the city were stalled because the college couldn’t afford renovations on top of the lease from Hendricks Commercial Properties, which owns the property. The hope is to find and open a facility by 2014, Eckert said.
Another side to the skills gap is what the employer is looking for in an employee. Randall Upton, president of the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce, said there has been a focus on the individual and not on the employer.
“We’re trying to reverse that in terms of what they need from employees,” he said.
GBCC is working with the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development to put a study together for a possible solution.
“What that solution is, we don’t know right now,” Upton said.
Bob Borremans, executive director of the workforce development, said the subject isn’t easy to tackle because there are a variety of reasons for the gap. Not to mention there’s no real way to measure how large the gap is, but they know it’s substantial.
“First of all anecdotally from hearing stories from employers; they aren’t finding workers with the skills they need,” he said. “But it doesn’t define what skills are lacking or missing.”
The next step is sitting down with the employers and identifying specifically what they were looking for in an employee. Borremans said one skill was lacking over all the industries from manufacturing to health care: employability.
“What it means to be a good employee,” he said. “We’re finding that a lot of the basic academics, from problem solving to math skills, those types of skills are sorely missing.”
Advancing technology with less hands-on and more working with robotic machines is one contributing factor, Borremans said. Increasing technology means that employees need to be able to work with different computer skills, something that hasn’t been apart of manufacturing curriculum before.
One solution some programs are taking is a “career pathway” course.
“Under the career pathway you identify what specific skills that an employer needs and you train for that specific skill,” Borremans said.
For example, whereas in the past welding classes would teach eight or nine different types of welds, a career pathway would teach one or two different types of welds.
“If they like welding then the employer can train them in the other types,” he said.
It’s a way to speed up the training process and fill in the needs more quickly than in the past. Another solution employers are looking at is giving jobs to immigrants that are more highly skilled.
“There are going be thousands of jobs that need to be replaced and we aren’t going to get that over the next 20 years. We might have to import people to fill those positions,” Borremans said. “There’s no easy solution to this.”
McGowan has one more semester left before getting her certificate and the decision waits for her future. She said she would like to work somewhere that allows her a hands-on approach.
Pierce has been hired as a welder in Darien. His employer has worked around his school schedule, and he is set to take his certification test later this semester. After he’s gained enough experience he wants to become certified welding inspector.
“When you get that CWI certificate you know you’ve accomplished something,” he said.