The Job Hunt: Consider a ‘skilled trades’ job

WATC student Hementa Das, right, talks with a representative from Spirit at a job fair organized by the Workforce Alliance. (Sept. 4, 2014)
WATC student Hementa Das, right, talks with a representative from Spirit at a job fair organized by the Workforce Alliance. (Sept. 4, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

There’s a part of the local economy in which bosses are anxious to hire people.

Cost-cutting politicians, including in the state of Kansas, are so worried about labor shortages in this niche that they are sending millions of dollars to state schools to pay tuition, scholarships and other costs to train new recruits for these jobs.

To get these jobs, you need some training, but you don’t need a college degree or the student debt that comes with it.

Welcome to the skilled trades, where bosses really, really want to talk with you.

And offer vacations.

And health plans.

And training.

These jobs aren’t like the numerous low-level jobs that pay about $10 an hour and net far below $20,000 a year.

Starting pay for skilled work, though it varies widely, pays better. In health care, for example, skilled jobs (requiring certification and not a college degree) generally start around $12 to $25 an hour, or $25,000 to $50,000 a year, depending on the job, said Joe Ontjes, a vice president at Wichita Area Technical College.

Many skilled jobs like welding or plumbing start in the range of $25,000 a year and are more likely to result in paid benefits.

But the skilled trades are no longer the segment dominated by traditional blue-collar jobs – plumbers, electricians, welders and construction. Employers say they are well short of the employees they need for those jobs, but the evolution of our culture is also creating demand for new skill sets that pay decent wages.

“Skilled trades” got more diverse and more intriguing in recent years, said Karla Fisher, vice president for academics at Butler Community College. Butler in the past year went through its curriculum like someone going through a closet discarding the stuff that no longer fits. It added new courses, based in part on what local employers told the school they need.

Cyberforensics is a hot career option. So is Web design, software development, digital media, graphic design – and jobs running those much-talked-about 3-D printers, which bosses and educators say are reinventing business.

“Anything IT (information technology) is really hot right now,” Fisher said. “We wouldn’t be offering classes for these jobs if bosses were not clamoring for them.”

The same thing has happened at Wichita Area Technical College. It spent years training sheet metal workers, machinists and health care workers – and bosses are still short of workers in those jobs, the college said.

But the school also has created courses for new tech-based jobs in recent years. As one example, the WATC created course work to train a new kind of tech/mechanical rapid response team, needed by factories that lose millions when equipment fails even temporarily.

“They’re the paramedics of the manufacturing world,” Ontjes said.

“There’s still something of an outdated understanding of what used to be called ‘vo-tech work,’ ” Ontjes said. “The old stigma was that vo-tech means low pay for doing dangerous, dirty work in the dark.

“But there are many new skilled jobs now. And those jobs now are more likely to involve high-tech work in beautiful, clean environments.”

Butler received a $2.7 million Department of Labor grant last year to foster curriculum changes.

“We went through everything saying, ‘OK, we need this class, but we don’t need this one any more,’ ” said Anna Catterson, the interim director of the IT institute at Butler. The goal, she said: certification training, taken over a few weeks or a few months, not only for young people joining the workforce but also for older people needing to change careers or broaden skills.

Bottom line, job consultants say: If you need a job or want a better job, don’t turn up your nose at “the skilled trades.” They aren’t what they once were. They don’t cost tens of thousands in student loans. Anybody wanting a better income should go see the what the schools offer.

Still, the old traditional jobs are hiring like few others: truck drivers, construction, health care.

Even aviation.

Aircraft companies are short of sheet metal workers and machinists, Ontjes said.

“People assume that because the aviation companies have downsized that they’re not looking for people,” Ontjes said. “That’s true of some of their jobs, but we’re having a hard time turning out enough sheet metal workers and machinists for their needs right now.”

Companies are so desperate to hire welders that they raid welding classes taught at Butler, hiring half-trained welders, Fisher said.

“And then that company loses the worker to another company that offers 50 cents more an hour,” she said. “And then a third company offers that worker more to come there. We can never send enough new welders out there.”

One caution, though: Skilled trades mean skill. You have to learn it.

You can’t be shy about mathematics in school. Some of these tech jobs involve using computers to make things. WATC and Butler will require assessment tests and will provide remedial help to catch up if you need it. But you have to show up to the classes and take them seriously.

And a good work ethic, such as showing up to work on time, is a frustrating issue for local employers, job consultants say. Employers bring it up repeatedly.

Work ethic has become enough of a problem that WATC several years ago built a work ethic component into the grading system for students, Ontjes said.

But that’s more an opportunity than a problem, Ontjes said.

“You may not have work experience, for example,” he said. “But if you show up for the interview with high marks for work ethic, you’ll impress the prospective employer right at the start, because you’ll stand out immediately from so many other candidates who don’t get those marks.”

Butler used part of the grant money to buy a Department of Labor site that gives an easy-to-use detailed picture – job by job, career by career – of the job market in the area served by the college. To find it, go to Butler’s website, butlercc.edu, and click on the icon “Career Coach.”

Contributing: Dan Voorhis of The Eagle

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle