Shortage of middle skills workers a growing concern

09.19.2014 | By Rob Vanya

A one-year certificate of technology from San Jacinto College’s diesel technology program helped graduate Julio Lopez secure a job as a lead fleet technician, a position he says offers great pay, excellent benefits, and job security. Photo credit: Rob Vanya, San Jacinto College marketing, public relations, and government affairs department.

 

San Jacinto College part of UpSkill Houston’s effort to bridge workforce gap

 

Some call them “dirty jobs.” Others think the pay is not so great. But those who bring home the paychecks and work the jobs know better.

They were once called “blue-collar” employees – welders, electricians, pipefitters, machinists, auto mechanics, and other craft trades and manufacturing workers. The positions are now being referred to as “middle skills” jobs, so called because the jobs require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree.

A recent survey of the Greater Houston Partnership’s (GHP) workforce development task force revealed that 62 percent believe that negative perceptions of middle skills jobs contribute to a growing labor shortfall. Moreover, 52 percent of young people between 13 and 17 have “little or no interest” in middle skills jobs, according to a survey by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA), a 2,300-member national industry group. The FMA survey suggests that many parents and their children hold negative perceptions of such jobs because of meager pay and perceived dirty working environments.

Such negative perceptions are partly contributing to a looming shortage of middle skills workers in the Houston area that has the GHP concerned. Through 2017, Houston will need more than 74,000 middle skills workers a year, according to GHP’s “Addressing Houston’s Middle Skills Jobs Challenge” report. “This shortage of workers will likely hamper the region’s ability to operate a safe work environment and even to expand,” the report states. “The lack of workers could also slow projects and even lead to their cancellation.”

To address the challenge, the partnership developed UpSkill Houston, a comprehensive, industry-led approach to bridge the workforce gap and fill jobs in middle-skills occupations. As a partner in the UpSkill Houston initiative, San Jacinto College has pledged to attract more people to middle skills career paths.

San Jacinto College graduate Julio Lopez personifies a “middle skills” employee who feels the good points of his job more than make up for any negatives. “The good pay, job security, and benefits, both from the satisfaction of a job-well-done and medical benefits, far outweigh the few inconveniences, such as not always having air conditioning and sometimes getting your hands a little dirty,” commented Lopez, who earned a one-year certificate of technology from San Jacinto College’s diesel technology program and works as a diesel technician for Silver Eagle Distributors.

Lopez chose his career path because he has always loved working on vehicles. “I started as a kid, changing oil and worked my way up to eventually building engines,” he said. “To take something that will not run and disassemble it, repair it, and rebuild it brings a feeling of real accomplishment and pride.”

Lopez points out that with diligence and determination, a technician can expect to make considerably good pay in a short amount of time. “Starting pay as an automotive technician is around $10 an hour for a college student in an on-the-job training environment,” he explained. “Starting pay as a diesel tech is around $18 an hour, and with a one-year certificate, the wage increases. Pay continues to increase with subsequent Automotive Service Excellence certifications and experience in the field. After three years in the diesel field, I was promoted to lead fleet technician 3, with an average pay of around mid- to upper-20s an hour, with certifications, and I have not yet reached the cap. I have the potential to make more and even be promoted to upper management with a higher salary.”

Lopez is bothered that trained technicians are labeled as “middle skills” workers. “The term ‘middle skills’ is degrading and insulting,” he remarked. “To perform the duties of a technician requires a lot of skill and ability. Would you consider our military men and women middle skill because they can enter the military without college credit? I believe the answer is no. Yet, when they re-enter the civilian sector they are among the most skilled and qualified. I know people who are book-smart and can pass tests without studying, yet they cannot change the oil or change a flat tire.”

Lopez says automotive and diesel technician jobs are not as “dirty” as in the past. “It has become less ‘dirty’ due to electronics and on-board computers,” he commented. “The new technology has made it possible to diagnose and repair in less time. You will get dirty doing some parts of this work no matter what, but cleanup is easy with the hand cleaners available today.”

Another San Jacinto College graduate, Emily Choate, also feels her welding career offers positives that outweigh the negatives. Choate earned a two-year associate degree in welding technology from San Jacinto College in 2004, and went “straight to the field” as a welder with Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway, and later to GE Oil and Gas as a welding inspector. In the field, she earned $25 to $35 an hour. After a few years, she accepted a position as a part-time welding instructor at San Jacinto College, and is now a full-time welding instructor at the College.

Choate sees welding as a unique blend of technology and art. “At heart I am an artist, and to me that is what welding is, an art,” she said. “It’s like painting, but my canvas is metal, my paint is a weld puddle, and my brush is an electrode. When I drop that hood and strike an arc, the whole world disappears, and it’s just me and that weld.”

But there are practical, real world benefits in her craft. “I earn enough money to support a family of four comfortably and have security, and every benefit one would need, from health insurance to life insurance,” she commented. “I am not a person who wants to work in a building sitting in a cubicle. I like that my job gives me different challenges.”

She says welding is not just a job; it is a career with endless possibilities. “It’s not limited to one location, it’s not a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday job,” she remarked. “You can work as much or as little as you want. You can work close to home, or travel the world. You can work for a large company, a small company, or be your own boss. The hours can be 50-plus a week sometimes, and seven days a week. There are days when you get off the job and your body lets you know you earned that paycheck. To me welding is like going to the gym. Yes it is work, but when you get done, you feel good about what you accomplished.”

For more information about diesel, welding, and other technical training offered by San Jacinto College, please visit www.sanjac.edu/program/career-technical-education.

About San Jacinto College

Surrounded by monuments of history, industries and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has been serving the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, for more than 50 years. As an Achieving the Dream Leader College, San Jacinto College is committed to the goals and aspirations of a diverse population of approximately 30,000 credit students. The College offers 186 degrees and certificates, with 46 technical programs and a university transfer division. Students benefit from a support system that maps out a pathway for success, and job training programs that are renowned for meeting the needs of growing industries in the region. San Jacinto College graduates contribute nearly $690 million each year to the Texas workforce.

For more information about San Jacinto College, please call 281-998-6150, visit www.sanjac.edu, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.