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In The News | September 2, 2019

How do we solve a crippling labor shortage? Tell kids it’s OK not to go to college

Opinion: There's a perception that the only way to get a good-paying job is to go to college. And it's hurting our nation.

Arizona Republic/azcentral
Alternative to College

Arizona’s gains in construction jobs could be at risk because of worker shortages. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File) (Photo: David Zalubowski, AP)

Americans need to face a hard reality.

As we approach the 125th anniversary of Labor Day, our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, and new construction is being delayed because we have a major labor shortage that is harming our nation.

Some Phoenix-area contractors are seeing record surges of overtime paid to their skilled laborers. They’re also paying up to $200 per day in per diem to lure out-of-state electricians, pipefitters and other trades workers to keep construction work going.

The good news is that this crisis is self-imposed, and we can fix the problem if we are willing to acknowledge a solution.

The solution: We need to tell our children that it’s OK not to go to college.

Apprenticeships are a viable alternative

Today’s young men, women, and veterans can earn good wages and learn a trade that will set them on a career path to earn $65,000 a year or more. That’s without a college degree and the crippling student-loan debt that often comes with a state university diploma.

I work for a company called Rosendin, the electrical contracting industry’s largest employee-owned firm with more than 6,000 employees. Every one of our projects since our founding in 1919 was built with men and women that were trained through accredited apprenticeship programs.

We hire good, hard-working people with little or no electrical or construction background and pay them to learn trade skills through the apprentice program, promoting them upon graduation.

Every state has apprenticeship programs. In Arizona, contractors work with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 640 and the Phoenix Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee to train electrical workers in the apprentice program.

The apprentices pay $8,000 for four or five years of classroom and on-the-job training. But the tuition fee is spread out over that time period, and they earn wages and benefits while they’re working.

We employ 135 of the 400 apprentices currently going through the program in the Phoenix area. Other contractors employ the remaining 265 apprentices.

The shortage has forced us to innovate

Apprentice programs are often overlooked because people think it’s a non-traditional education path. The perception is that the only way to get a good-paying job is by going to college.

So, for way too long, we’ve been pushing high school graduates to rack up student loans to attend college for medium- or low-paying desk jobs. We’re failing to tell these high school students that they also have the option of a high-paying, rewarding career where they are paid to learn a skill without attending college or incurring student debt.

And, frankly, the construction industry badly needs more workers to keep up with the current pace of development. The need is only growing as retirement rates of long-tenured employees continues to increase.

With a shortage of skilled workers, industry leaders are leveraging technology to create efficiencies on its job sites and to keep workers safe. They’ve innovated their processes using computer modeling and prefabricating electrical components in climate-controlled warehouses.

Those computer modeling jobs have created additional job opportunities in the electrical industry.

Yes, the skilled-labor shortage is a challenge, but it’s created great opportunities for young people looking for training programs that can put them on a lucrative career path. By joining the construction trades, with the proper training, today’s high school graduates can be part of a 21st-century workforce.

They can take their place with a new generation of workers to continue wiring and building the America of our future.

Mike Greenawalt is senior vice president of Rosendin, an employee-owned electrical contractor that is doing work on the Tempe streetcar and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Skytrain. He started as an apprentice electrician at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in 1979. Reach him at [email protected]; on Twitter, @Rosendin.

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About Rosendin

Headquartered in San Jose, Calif., Rosendin is employee-owned and one of the largest electrical contractors in the United States, employing over 7,500 people, with revenues averaging $2 billion. Established in 1919, Rosendin remains proud of our more than 100 years of building quality electrical and communications installations and value for our clients but, most importantly, for building people within our company and our communities. Our customers lead some of the most complex construction projects in history and rely on us for our knowledge, our ability to scale, and our dedication to quality. At Rosendin, we work to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential by building a culture that is diverse, safe, welcoming, and inclusive.

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