Labor Unions Work to Fix Skills Gap

By September 27, 2006Economy, Labor Unions

We were really glad that Keith Romig Jr. of the United Steelworkers participated Monday in the announcement of a new certification program for skilled “production technicians.” Romig is the labor chair of the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council (MSSC), which developed the certification process. (NAM news release here.)

As Romig says in this “Working for America Institute” newsletter (pdf file):

Manufacturing production workers’ skills are not widely recognized because workers in the U.S. tend to acquire them through on-the-job training. MSSC addresses this issue by formalizing a set of skills that will help workers prove their capabilities to their employers. Through MSSC, American workers will gain greater skill recognition so that we can keep manufacturing jobs here in the United States.

For all our differences with labor, we are absolutely on the same side in wanting employees to gain the skills to succeed in manufacturing, skills that lead to high-paying jobs with lots of career prospects. In the United States.

Which brings us back to George Leef, the executive director of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education in North Carolina. We posted earlier about Leef’s thought-provoking critique of higher education as an economic panacea. Leef contributes to the National Review’s Phi Beta Cons blog, and last week he passed on this anecdote from Bill Conerly, an economic consultant from lovely Lake Oswego, Oregon, and chairman of the Cascade Policy Institute. (Bill’s website here.)

I was meeting with sheet metal contractors and their union representatives in Seattle. I learned that they could not find enough people to fill their apprenticeship program. Here’s their deal: they need people with solid arithmetic and algebra skills, and good work habits. The person is paid to work as an apprentice, taking some classes at the same time. Classes are free. After 3 to 5 years, the person becomes a journeyman sheet-metal worker. The compensation package is then about $50 an hour, which is both wages and benefits. That works out to about $65k wages and $35 k benefits per year. And the person has no college loans. The bright, ambitious ones can go into management. Yet they cannot fill the apprenticeship program openings. Nobody wants to do blue collar work; everyone has been told to go to college. The high-school counselors are the worst.

Like we said, the labor guys are serious about the need for skilled employees. And they see the same problem of perception about manufacturing careers that we do — a perception we’re working to fix with the Dream It. Do It. campaign. So thanks to Keith, George and Bill — and Bill’s sheet metal contractor — for bringing real-world insight to a problem that labor and employers can agree on: the skills gap.

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