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Help Wanted: Closing Michigan’s Skilled Trades Gap

By Melissa Anders

Construction companies are struggling to find enough qualified skilled trades workers to complete projects in and around the Detroit region — a problem that has rallied businesses, government, educational institutions and labor unions alike. While the issue is not unique to Michigan, it is particularly evident in Detroit, where construction is picking up and massive projects like Little Caesars Arena and the Gordie Howe International Bridge have increased demand.

The shortage means that some projects may take longer to complete and could cost more as supply and demand drive up labor costs, said Todd Sachse, CEO of Detroit-based Sachse Construction. He explained that as older tradesmen retire, there are not enough younger people to take their place.

There are more than 8,300 skilled trades job openings across all industries in Michigan, and more than 6,200 are expected to be available each year through 2022, according to Pure Michigan Talent Connect.

International-Bancard

Photo by John D’Angelo

The company is working to attract new talent to the construction industry through various efforts. Maibach pointed to two main reasons behind the shortage: Many workers left the industry in the wake of massive declines during the Great Recession; and skilled trades suffer from a negative perception as a “dirty job” and the only way to be successful is to get a four-year degree.

It is hard to convince parents who would rather spend thousands of dollars to send their children to four-year schools than support a pathway to the skilled trades, said Parmeshwar Coomar, dean of the Applied Science and Engineering Technology Department at Monroe County Community College (MCCC).

But skilled trades are not menial jobs, he said. They require postsecondary education and pay good, living wages. Pay for skilled trades workers vary by experience and specific trade. For example, salaries range from $35,000 to $75,000 for ironworkers, sheet metal workers and plumbers/pipefitters, according to MichiganConstruction.com.

Apprentices earn pay and benefits while obtaining schooling and on-the-job training that can lead to full-time careers and eventually journey person status.

“You don’t have to be pounding nails for the rest of your life,” Coomar added. Numerous skilled trades students have gone on to earn their associate and bachelor’s degrees and are now leaders at their respective companies.

Monroe offers programs in welding, design drafting and construction management, among other trades. It has 83 apprentices practicing in various trades this semester, and Coomar said he hopes construction companies will come forward to start apprentice partnerships as well.

Just as technological innovation is impacting the skilled trades, education needs to be nimble and adaptive to industry needs, said Michael Nealon, vice president of academic affairs at Henry Ford College (HFC) in Dearborn. He said there needs to be a paradigm shift toward “just-in-time” instruction that allows for students to begin working while continuing to learn new skills.


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Leaders at HFC want to see more employers partner with the college and embrace an“earn and learn” approach — that is, to hire students before they finish school, but still allow them to continue their education while employed. They would also like to see more employers stepping up as instructors. Labor unions need to participate and contribute as well, Nealon said.

“It really needs to be a community-wide effort,” said Gary Saganski, HFC’s director of academic relations. Saganski said there is still plenty of work to do in order to close the talent gap in Michigan.

“I do believe we are beginning to move the needle by way of creating employment pathways, competency-based technology programs targeted for these occupations, and local and regional partnerships between the community, education, industry and government,” he said.

Dannis Mitchell, Barton Malow’s diversity manager, is working at the grassroots level. She said for some interested candidates, understanding the skilled trades and job requirements can be difficult. There are nearly 20 different trades, ranging from ironworker to design engineer, available in Michigan.

“People usually blank stare when asked, ‘What kind of construction do you want to get into?’” Mitchell said.

She has spent the last year gathering information to disseminate to prospective candidates to limit confusion during the decision-making process. Sachse Construction is also working with community partners to bolster the talent pipeline. The company and more than 35 of its subcontractors worked with Junior Achievement of Southeast Michigan last October to host a Construction Academy for 500 metro Detroit students.

“The event was a huge success, and we’re looking to host similar educational opportunities in the future, so that we can help young people learn as early as possible that this is a plausible and sustainable career option,”Sachse said.

Melissa Anders is a metro Detroit native and freelance writer.

Read more from this issue below: 

Detroit: A City on the Rise

The Ilitch Touch: Transforming Detroit’s Downtown

Under Construction: Michigan’s Build-To-Suit Market