This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of 425 Business.
As schools groom kids for college, companies are stepping in to remind students of other job paths — ones that don’t include debt
Jared Greenwood’s material science classroom at Lake Washington High School was a whir of activity one fall morning.
Seniors in the advanced class were busy using a CNC metal cutter; across the room, freshmen and sophomores were taking a safety exam on drill presses. About 10 other students waiting for a chance to operate machinery were sketching designs for simple wooden toys. Senior Trina Dao was planning an airplane, while freshman Robert Babayan envisioned a puzzle in which wooden shapes must fit in corresponding holes in a box. Come December, the students will deliver their finished products to elementary school students and kids at local hospitals.
Scurrying safety glasses-clad kids is an age-old high school scene, but one that has become decreasingly common. Enrollment in career and technical education, or CTE, classes has been declining for decades. Today, American high school students graduate with an average of 3.6 CTE credits, down from 4.2 in 1990 (credits in other primary subjects, such as English, art, and math, have increased). Just 0.4 percent of high school students graduated with five or more manufacturing credits in 2009.
“We’ve done a lot to promote the program. Our numbers have grown for material science and engineering,” Greenwood said, noting that the program expanded from two sections to three over the last year. Nevertheless, Greenwood’s class has students of all ages in one room because there aren’t enough kids to warrant a separate advanced class.
Many students who still do take CTE classes see them as skill-builders, not as precursors to a potential career. That wasn’t always the case, and in an attempt to return shop class to its former job-grooming glory, manufacturing companies are stepping in, hoping to turn classrooms like Greenwood’s into recruiting battlegrounds.
Over the course of the school year, Greenwood’s kids will learn how to mold, shape, cut, and build products out of wood, metal, ceramic, and composite materials. But Greenwood’s teaching also will include a piece of little-known Puget Sound economics. He’ll detail the job prospects in the area manufacturing scene (they’re good), and will help kids hone résumés and cover letters. If folks like Greenwood and area companies succeed, students’ job-hunting skills will be put to good use; the goal is for these kids to compete for well-paying jobs right out of high school, rather than plummeting into student-loan debt.
There is, of course, headway to be made. Freshman Riley Huston is interested in “woodworking, manufacturing, and using tools,” he said. He spent his summer selling Adirondack chairs he built. Babayan said he originally planned on becoming a computer programmer, but is becoming more attracted to other science fields. Dao thinks building furniture professionally would be a blast, and fellow senior Dylan Imhof is interested in electrical work. None plans to take a manufacturing job after high school.
THE BUREAU OF Labor Statistics says there are more than 330,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs nationally. The reason, in the eyes of many, is that so many high schoolers, like those students in Greenwood’s class, see college as a more viable post-graduation option. In America’s post-World War II manufacturing heyday, when the sector accounted for nearly 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, it wasn’t uncommon for workers, primarily men, to enter the factory after graduating from high school. “Made in America” wasn’t a novelty tag then — Americans built the products they used, and in the process established the world’s largest and wealthiest middle class.
Now, that high school-to-factory path rarely is considered. Public education largely focuses on college preparation, and other fields are considered more glamorous or integral to today’s economy — consider the difference in rhetoric around computer science and manufacturing, particularly in tech-heavy Puget Sound. “Skilled trades are really tough to find right now,” said Stan Weeks, the former director of recruiting at Bellevue-based Esterline and current vice president of human resources at Pacific Cascade. “Your high school programs, they’ve gotten rid of metal shop, wood shop, and kids have been forced into a four-year college environment. Well, not all of them are a fit for that. And as a result, you reduce your skilled trades.”
Esterline, which has been around since 1906 and designs and builds airplane sensors, avionics systems, and other products, for years was able to rely on word-of-mouth hiring and a flood of qualified applicants. That’s no longer the case; Weeks led the company’s first recruiting department.
Workforce complaints aren’t unusual in the Puget Sound area. Information-technology leaders assail the lack of qualified workers, blaming the education and immigration systems in sweeping criticisms. People are listening, as evidenced by the incessant calls for better STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — programs in schools, from kindergarten to college.
Not mentioned in today’s preeminent educational acronym, though, is manufacturing, even though anything that is built must first be engineered.
“Everybody has this dream of going to work for Microsoft or Amazon or someplace like that,” said Tom McLaughlin, executive director of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Puget Sound, an industry advisory group. “That’s why there’s so much emphasis in the technology area, but not everybody is going to get a job at those companies.”
It’s fair to think manufacturing isn’t the most secure field, however. In 1979, nearly 20 million Americans worked for manufacturing companies. That number has plummeted as America’s economy has diversified and as product assembly has largely been shipped overseas. In 2000, there were about 17.3 million manufacturing employees in the U.S.; by 2010, that figure dipped below 11.5 million (it now hovers around 12.3 million). Union membership, long a staple in the manufacturing realm, has dropped from nearly 40 percent to just above 10 percent as companies’ relationships with unions become increasingly antagonistic. One seemingly has little reason to look for industrial jobs in a market economists call post-industrial.
But the sector still accounts for nearly 10 percent of all jobs in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area, and companies here are hiring. To McLaughlin, the battle begins in high schools, but the onus doesn’t rest solely on the public education system.
“Industry can’t just sit back and be critical that they can’t find people,” McLaughlin said. “They’ve gotta be standing there saying, ‘This is what we need going forward.’”
With funding for vocational education continually slimming — fewer than 9 percent of CTE budgets increased in 2015 — it’s clear companies have a greater responsibility to help groom potential employees.
THE SKILLED TRADES, as the name implies, hinge on workers possessing a certain skill set. To that end, Marianne Sulkosky, director of human resources for BTG, the parent company of Bothell medical-devices manufacturer Ekos, adopted a recruiting approach inspired by the DigiPen Institute of Technology, the Redmond game-development school established by former Nintendo executive Claude Comair.
“You can do the traditional college-recruiting process, but we thought that was an interesting model in that they (Nintendo) really are developing their own talent,” Sulkosky said. “I think the wave of the future is that talent-development model. Companies are either going to have to create their own schools or partner with other schools.”
DigiPen is an independent organization and doesn’t operate as a Nintendo feeder — its graduates go on to work for numerous firms — but Sulkosky’s gist is shared by a growing number of manufacturing firms: If schools aren’t producing the types of employees you need, then you have to help shape those employees yourself. This strategy facilitates more diverse sourcing of recruits. One Ekos pipeline is the Refugee Federation Service Center, a Seattle nonprofit that helps refugees navigate life in America. Ekos donates expertise and materials to the organization, and in return receives better-trained employees.
Playing a more active role in training also allows companies to focus on behavioral traits among hires rather than being forced to hire candidates with the requisite technical expertise. “You can train anybody to do anything,” Sulkosky said. “What you can’t train is an innate behavior.”
Boeing, for its part, is taking numerous steps to shape vocational education in the Puget Sound area. It is helping fund and develop Core Plus, an application-based vocational curriculum designed by state educators and industry representatives. At the post-secondary level, Boeing partners with the Center of Excellence for Aerospace and Advanced Manufacturing, a partnership between 34 community and technical colleges in the state.
“Those partnerships are with all the community and technical colleges and high schools that have aerospace programs,” said Michelle Burreson, the senior manager of workforce development for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “It’s to make sure we have curriculum that’s aligned with what the industry is going to need. That partnership is pretty logical, because we all have the same objectives: Get people qualified, and have skilled people come in and get jobs — really good-paying jobs.”
Once a hire is made, companies are making greater efforts to train employees and facilitate career advancement within the company. Just as retailer Costco selects its executives from within, manufacturing companies are making clear that a job in the factory doesn’t have to be the end of the line for young employees. Boeing CEO and President Dennis Muilenberg, for example, began his career as an intern at the company.
Another aspect of snagging more and better employees is changing the narrative around manufacturing.
“As employers, we need to do a better job of marketing,” Weeks said. “We need to get in front of the right schools, the right people outside the industry, and say what we’re all about. Companies have been pretty humble, because we haven’t had a problem finding talent. But as it becomes more competitive, you have to stand out among your competitors inside and outside the industry.”
One way to do that is to better inform students of their options. At Lake Washington High, representatives from companies and area tech schools work with Greenwood to set up tours and campus visits. In November, the school hosted an event for students and parents to learn more about area manufacturing firms, and how that post-secondary path might look for their children.
“Our focus is ‘college and career ready,’ so making sure each kid is ready for whatever path they want to take,” Greenwood said. “If they’re not a college kid and don’t want to sit through four more years of pushing papers, they can take a more hands-on approach.”
One route for those students is a tech or vocational college, many of which have partnerships and apprenticeship programs established with nearby companies. But according to Jay Kissinger, who instructs Renton Technical College’s aerospace manufacturing assembly course, few kids are going straight from high school to his classroom. Most of his students, he said, have been out of school for a while and are looking to make a significant career switch.
Furthermore, many area companies haven’t actively engaged with instructors and curriculum developers at RTC and other tech schools, Kissinger said.
“(Companies need to) reach out to us. We can’t reach out to them. We’ve tried; I’ve tried on occasion. We’re so involved here with the students that time is an issue,” Kissinger said. “It would be nice if I could visit the companies to see what they’re doing, and it would be nice to know what each of the companies needs from us.”
Kissinger’s experience highlights a disconnect in the worker pipeline. Companies are eager to get better trained employees. Vocational schools are eager to provide them, but Kissinger said most of his calls to companies go unreturned. While a large firm like Boeing might have a representative to send to schools, smaller firms don’t, which inhibits communication between them and the organizations tasked with bolstering their workforce.
OLEKSANDR SHEVCHUK moved to Lakewood from Ukraine when he was in middle school. Once in high school, Shevchuk took an interest in material sciences. “I flew here on an airplane. That’s what got me interested,” he recalled. “I was amazed at how this machine could carry so many people at once and, like, not crash.”
He eventually learned how those planes were built at the Sno-Isle Skill Center, a state-run vocational school in Everett. There, Shevchuk learned how to drill holes, fasten rivets and Hi-Lok pins, countersink rivets, and other skills many don’t learn until they enroll in a vocational college like RTC.
At the insistence of his teacher, Shevchuk took part in the SkillsUSA competition, in which high school students compete at industrial tasks. Shevchuk went on to win the state aviation assembly competition, and Boeing sponsored his trip to the national finals in Louisville, Kentucky, in June.
Shevchuk didn’t win at Louisville, but still was met by a grateful sponsor upon his return. A Boeing representative recognized that Shevchuk and his classmates showed promise, so he helped them apply for jobs. “Then they scheduled a day for job interviews,” Shevchuk said. “There were so many of us, they were nice enough to travel to our school.”
Two months after graduating from Meadowdale High School, Shevchuk was a machinist at Boeing. “A lot of people in my (aerospace program) graduated and went straight to Boeing,” he said. “My other friends who didn’t go through the program are working at McDonald’s or Burger King. They get minimum wage, and I get paid close to (what my) mom and dad (earn).”
Shevchuk, who in late October was wrapping up his training with Boeing, makes $16 per hour, and can expect guaranteed pay bumps thanks to union membership. It’s a scenario many college graduates saddled with debt and lacking job prospects would envy. He’s scheduled to receive 50-cent wage increases every six months; if he stays with Boeing four years, he would be making $20 an hour with cumulative earnings approaching $150,000. Contrast that with the average college student, who finds himself $29,000 in debt after attaining a four-year degree. Should Shevchuk eventually decide to earn a degree (the lifetime earnings of those with a bachelor’s degree are, on average, more than double those with no college education), Boeing might reimburse his tuition.
Shevchuk’s path was fortuitous, and Boeing played a significant role in sculpting it. At the Skill Center, Shevchuk studied the Core Plus curriculum Boeing helped develop. Once the company found out about Shevchuk and his talented classmates, Boeing gave itself a leg up on nabbing the young workers that other companies — in manufacturing and other industries — are striving to attain.
With Core Plus, Boeing can say, “Hey, you’ve already tried out some of this work and found that you like it,” said Melissa Garner, Boeing’s human resources director of manufacturing. “Now come to Boeing, learn more, get in here, and you can either continue that career path in manufacturing or you can start to open up and see other career paths you haven’t thought about.”
Boeing has the resources and the clout to experiment in this realm. But, as the competition for manufacturing employees heats up, smaller firms are increasingly adopting similar strategies. The sales pitch is straightforward: Instead of plunking tens of thousands of dollars down on a college degree, come work for us. High school grads will make some money, the company might help pay for college down the line, and there’s plenty of room for upward mobility within the corporation.
It’s just about getting candidates to listen.