Shortage Of Trades Workers Feared In Ohio

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Welding instructor Terry Hassell with students(Photo: Debbie Holmes)
Welding instructor Terry Hassell with students(Photo: Debbie Holmes)

Experts predict Ohio soon could face a shortage of skilled trades workers. The reasons: electricians, plumbers and others are retiring, and fewer young people are choosing the skilled trades as a career. Educators and labor unions are trying to get younger workers to consider careers using their hands.

“Here’s the rod we’re going to put this in and we’re going to ignite some powder and that melts that into a solid piece. The best electrical conduction is solid pieces.”

Teacher Terry Hassell supervises high school students as they perform a welding exercise. The lessons came during a career day at The Electrical Trades Center on the near west side. The center is trying to attract young people looking for a career that does not involve a desk and a chair.

“In construction you get something done, and you can see it. It’s kind of different pushing a pencil you know. You see what I mean it’s just a personal choice and a lot of these guys like what they see,” says Hassell.

Eastland Career Center junior Jon Duty decided to pursue construction work after hearing an electrician talk about job opportunities.

“Just the way my brain thinks and the circuits and laying everything out and to know that you have a hand in building something. You just drive past something and say like I worked there,” Duty explains.

Electrician and union member Steve Lipster, says the skilled trades face a looming worker shortage. For example, as aging electricians retire, the union will need 400 new workers over the next decade.

Lipster says the number of apprentices who move on to become journeyman had dropped through the years. He blames high schools which encourage all students to earn a four year college degree.

“The reality is they just haven’t been exposed to the kind of work we did and the rewards that come with it. It’s a very satisfying occupation but things like high school shop is pretty much non-existent anymore so students have not been exposed to the joys of working with their hands, being able to measure, create something,” says Lipster.

But he says they have time to adjust.

“We saw this coming. This isn’t something that was a big surprise for us. That’s when we started these outreach activities that have really born fruit for us, so I know there’s this kind of human cry about skilled workers and all of that and sure it’s a concern, but I really feel pretty comfortable we’ve taken the right steps to make sure that we have the right people,” adds Lipster.

Ohio is ranked 10th among the 50 states for having the oldest workers in the skilled trades. The staffing firm ManPower Group says 57% are over 45 years old.

39 year old apprentice Joe Day earned his engineering degree and worked at a computer for a decade before deciding it was time to do something more hands on.

“With this program you learn the actual theory behind it and then you actually go out and you see. You apply your theory on the job, so that’s the major thing that I get out of it that I like about it,” says Day.

Other trades are adjusting. The local Plumbers and Pipefitters union does not predict an immediate shortage of plumbers, but it has seen a shortage of entry level applicants. Spokesman Mike Kelley also partly blames a bias by school officials against careers in the trades.

A spokesman for a union that represents carpenters, and masons says attracting young people requires a continuing effort. The union recently held a test for new apprentices and does not know if it will have enough to fill all jobs.

To help trades workers who also want college credit, The Electrical Trades Center teamed up with Columbus State 12 years ago to form a special program. Those who complete it earn an associate’s degree paid for by the center. J.D. White coordinates the skilled trades program at Columbus State.

“We think by having this college articulated pathway it’s really going to help to recruit and draw people to the trades,” says White.

White says more than 2,000 people have completed the program and gone on to seek jobs in construction.

After working at least 1,000 hours, trainees can move into an apprenticeship where they will spend several years mastering electrical work to become a journeyman.

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