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Businesses And Educators Push Trade Education To Close Skills Gap

(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)
West-MEC's coding program prepares students for careers in software development.

Joe Holcombe’s company, Chasse Building, is responsible for making sure Paseo Pointe Elementary School in southwest Phoenix is ready to open in time for the new school year. Meeting that deadline can be challenging.

“Every trade is basically shorthanded," he said. 

There are not enough carpenters, framers and roofers. That means six-day work weeks are the norm. And it’s not just the construction industry that’s facing a shortage of qualified workers. So is healthcare.

“If you were to go to our website, you could see up to 900 job openings," Dede Schmallen with Honor Health said.

Schmallen was part of a recent workforce panel organized by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. Diane McCarthy was there, too. She oversees business partnerships at West-MEC, a public school district focused on career and technical education. 

"We believe the best way [to boost the trade workforce], obviously, is to get students interested and involved at a very early age," she said.

West-MEC is among 14 joint technical education distsricts (JTED) that partner with traditional school districts. Typically, a student attends their neighborhood high school in the morning then heads to a district, like West-MEC, that offers specialized classes with hands-on training. More than 6,000 courses cover things from automotive repair to veterinary care, cosmetology to coding.

At West-MEC's START campus in Glendale, 16-year-old Carrie Dunn is learning PHP, a coding language. She enrolled in the two-year program last fall and admits juggling two schools can be tough, but worth it.

“I’m going to pay my way through college by starting as a junior developer to help pay for college," she said. "But I’m going to go further and get my software engineering degree and computer science degree.”

Industry experts say Carrie’s first job after finishing West-MEC’s program could bring her $50,000-to-$60,000 a year. That kind of starting salary for 18 and 19- year-old career and technical students isn’t the standard, but higher graduation rates are.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, 98 percent of students in career and tech programs will graduate high school. Compare that to the state’s overall graduation rate of 76 percent. 

“One reason why the American dream is in jeopardy is that we’ve adopted a very elitist view of the job market," said Bill Symonds, who runs the Global Pathways Institute, a Scottsdale-based group focused on promoting economic independence for young people.

He told the audience attending the Chamber workforce panel that Americans need to stop looking down on jobs that require less than a four-year degree. “We have to restore the idea of the dignity of work," he said.

Meanwhile, attendee Mike Romano said, “This is not a secondary option for them. This is an equal option with significant opportunity.” 

Romano told the group that he’s living proof. In 1992, he graduated from the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. Today, he’s the campus president at Universal Technical Institute. The school in Avondale trains technicians for the transportation industry.

The audience laughed as he shared this story, "I myself as a young adult remember a girl I was very interested in saying, 'You’ll never amount to anything more than a grease monkey if that’s what’s you’re going to do.' I remember calling her up after I made my first million in the industry and sharing it with her.”

Back at the school construction site in southwest Phoenix, Joe Holcombecan’t guarantee a million dollar paycheck, but says construction is an honorable career path. "You really get a sense of satisfaction," he said.

By August, teachers, students and staff members will replace the plumbers, electricians and drywallers at Paseo Pointe Elementary.And, more high school students will launch into new classes like accounting, aerospace engineering and welding.  

For now, contractors like Holcombe can only hope these programs will build a bigger pool of skilled workers. It's an honorable way to make a living.

As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.