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Employers complain of shortage of skilled labor

| Monday, Sept. 27, 2010

Before he graduated from Penn-Trafford High School, Maxx Biesuz heard from a lot of people that he was "too smart" to become a machinist.

But he said deciding to attend a technical school and learn that trade was the best choice he ever made.

"That jumpstarted my career before anyone else even had one," said Biesuz, 18, of Delmont, who graduated from high school this spring.

He is an apprentice machinist at Stellar Precision Components. On Tuesday nights, he takes classes at the Central Westmoreland Career & Technology Center in New Stanton, paid for by his employer. In four years, Biesuz said, he will qualify as a journeyman machinist and he expects his $20,000-a-year salary to jump to $30,000 or even $40,000.

Many employers say the United States has too few people like Biesuz. A shortage of skilled-trade workers — such as machinists, electricians and welders — could be hampering the country's economic recovery, they argue.

A survey published last month by Manpower Inc., a Milwaukee-based international job-placement company, showed that U.S. employers consider finding skilled-trade workers as their No. 1 hiring challenge.

"It's a problem that countries must address for the long term to foster economic health and fuel business," the report said.

At the same time, President Obama last month called on the United States to produce 8 million more college graduates by 2020, "because America has to have the highest share of graduates compared to every other nation."

Obama said ensuring American workers succeed in the 21st century hinges on providing them access to the best education the world has to offer.

Putting so much emphasis on college education worries Jeff Kelly, CEO and owner of Hamill Manufacturing in Westmoreland County. His precision-machine and fabricating company primarily contracts with the defense industry. He said his employees make between $25,000 and $70,000 a year.

"If you look at the macro level, there aren't going to be enough people to replace the workers we're going to lose.

"Who's going to do the work that needs to be done, like the linemen to keep the electricity on?" Kelly said.

John Hammang, spokesman for the Washington-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the demand for many trade jobs has declined.

"An awful lot of manufacturing is now done outside the country," Hammang said, adding that he doesn't foresee that dynamic changing soon.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in installation, maintenance and repair occupations increased to 9.5 percent last month from 8.1 percent in August 2009.

"The main problem in the labor market right now, it seems to me, is one of weak demand and not so much a problem of mismatch between the skills of the unemployed and the needs of employers," University of Pittsburgh labor economist Alexis León said.

Still, Hammang and León concede that some specialized trades in certain geographic areas probably lack qualified people.

Kelly said that's an obstacle he's confronting.

"I can't find enough workers because people aren't aware that these jobs exist," said Kelly, who employs about 130.

"People have to know that the skilled trades are a viable career path," said Becca Dernberger, Manpower Inc.'s northeast division vice president.

One reason people don't is the stigma American culture has attached to vocational-technical schools, said Kevin Rice, assistant director of the career and technology center in New Stanton.

"Our society is misguided and misinformed," Rice said. "The value of a four-year college education is misunderstood. That type of degree used to mean economic prosperity. But that's no longer the case."

Rice cited an example of a recent elementary teacher's position in the Bentworth School District in Washington County that attracted more than 200 applicants.

"Those people bought into the dream that a bachelor's degree equals economic prosperity," he said.

Rice emphasized that he isn't dissuading students from going to college. Many tech center students ultimately earn bachelor's and master's degrees in fields such as nursing and business administration.

"Americans should be aware another route, just as viable, exists, too," Rice said. Vocational-technical schools 30 years ago taught skills that used to be farther down the skill chain. Today, students at the center gain the technological know-how to repair modern vehicles that contain computer-operating systems.

"And we've improved the rigor of our academic courses," Rice said. The curriculum includes literacy and writing classes, he said.

Dernberger adds that a bachelor's degree and a trade-school certification are not mutually exclusive.

"In order to build a community of a sustainable work force that leverages talent, we will need to embrace and encourage both paths," she said.

Mandi Bartlett, 23, did exactly that. Like Biesuz, Bartlett took classes at the tech center in the afternoons while she attended high school.

A 2005 graduate of Hempfield Area Senior High, the Greensburg resident is a registered nurse working on her master's degree at Carlow University's Greensburg campus to become a nurse practitioner.

"If I hadn't gone to tech, I don't know if I would've gone into nursing," said Bartlett, who makes more than $50,000 a year. "The stigma's there, and it's not true."

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