Rebranding career tech jobs vital to growing workforce say Sacramento employers

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Anette Smith-Dohring of Sutter Health speaking at Sacramento Strong Workforce Town Hall yesterday (Photo Credit: John Guenther)

When talking to employers in California and college chancellors, it’s clear that career tech jobs need a retooling of their image. At a workforce town hall in Sacramento yesterday, those in attendance stressed the old view of CTE jobs as “dirty”, low-pay jobs is out of date, as is the pace that California is training students to replace retiring workers.

“Over the past 10 years, we’ve noticed a 35 percent decline in welding programs in the local area,” said Joe Wernette of Tri Tool Inc., a local manufacturer. “Let’s stop reducing and let’s start increasing the availability…and improving the image from what is now the stereotype “biker build offs” of the manufacturing and welding worlds. We are professionals.”

The California Community Colleges are putting on the Town Halls as part of a task force assembled to ask and answer the question of how to get the state’s workforce trained in the right skills to be most employable for good-paying, in-demand jobs of tomorrow.

And employers from the capital region were ready to “show the money” and talk salaries. The jobs they talked about in the middle skill category don’t necessarily need a four-year degree, but usually some post-secondary skills training, which can have a high return on investment.

“Some of our highest paid employees are registered nurses that have a community college associate’s degree,” said Anette Smith-Dohring, the workforce development manager at Sutter Health. “Even our environmental services technicians…they need materials handling, they need hazardous material training. Those middle-skill jobs make about $40,000 a year. Even just cleaning the hospital. All the way up to our average registered nurses–$136,000 a year.”

Part of the reason the community colleges and others are focusing on these middle skill jobs is that in the next decade the state will need a million workers with “some college” which includes certificates, associate’s degrees and industry-recognized credentials in high-skill jobs in career technical education (CTE) fields. Another important piece is that the data shows those CTE jobs pay off compared to non-CTE degree holders.

“Career technical education has turned out to be a pathway out of poverty,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, the Vice Chancellor for Workforce and Economic Development at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. “We rolled out a tool last year called the Salary Surfer which mapped the earning power of our students two years and five years after completing our certificates and AA degrees. And what we discovered is that five years later the average [CTE] earning across the entire system of 112 community colleges is $66,000.”

The town hall opened up the floor for ideas on how to create more of these middle-skill workers and change the image of the jobs to make them an option high school students will look into more often. Susan Wheeler of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) suggested creating a campaign to tout the potential for salary and economic mobility of CTE jobs, targeting parents and students.

“If you’re going to fund equipment and materials, the community colleges could extend access for the high school students…instead of having to invest multiple times in multiple locations,” said Wheeler, the workforce planning and education relations strategist at SMUD.

On top of the image problem, demographics are adding to the stakes of the skills gap. As a generation of workers are retiring, the skills gap is only getting worse, according to employers.

“We have that effect going on in our skilled trades, in our field positions,” said Jason Cameron, program manager of Power Pathways at PG&E. “We estimate that about 45 percent of our workforce is eligible to retire in the next three to five years. That’s frightening, frankly. We need to…develop this pipeline.”

“We still have the issue of finding skilled, qualified employees,” said Wernette. “Engineers need technicians to make what they do even feasible. There’s over 200,000 welders needed in the U.S. by the year 2020. I feel, as an employer, my greatest need is the help of our community to train our future employees.”

Another big theme for employers at the town hall was California’s community colleges and partners have to figure out how to update CTE curricula much faster. Where it generally takes three years on average to revamp, the lifecycle of advanced manufacturing equipment can sometimes be as little as 18 months.

“One of the challenges we have is, if we want to change that curriculum, it has to go through the process again,” said Cameron. “And that process takes a really long time. If it’s a year-long process, we’re three editions later. We change so fast.”

Cameron and others also suggested helping curriculum changes transfer quickly from college to college. As with last week’s Silicon Valley town hall, in order to make these types of changes, community college leaders stressed the need for an expanded pool of resources, especially since CTE programs are funded the same way as a liberal arts class, despite being more expensive to offer.

“When the dollars don’t follow the cost of the program, we hold on to career technical education programs, even though it doesn’t make fiscal sense, because we know that they’re that important,” said Chancellor Brian King of the Los Rios Community College District. “That’s a hard model to sustain over the long haul.”

The people involved in revamping CTE in Califonia have also repeatedly encouraged beefing up partnerships between employers and education, to help speed up the change of curriculum and make sure the certifications and degrees hold value.

These Town Hall meetings will continue this month as part of the Task Force on Workforce, Job Creation and a Strong Economy created by the Community Colleges’ Board of Governors. The last town hall session will be held in San Diego on Wednesday, March 18.

The Task Force next meets again on April 2 in Sacramento. Task Force members are knowledgeable leaders from across the community college system, the business community, labor, public agencies involved in workforce training, community based organizations, K-12 policy, and other groups. They will review the input from the Town Hall meetings and begin to consider strategies and recommend policies and practices to the Community Colleges Board of Governors this fall. 

“These technical trades are community involved work,” added Wernette. “You can build something. You could weld something. The community needs it.”


John Guenther

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