Closing the skill gap

Local community colleges offer skilled trade courses to high school students as alternative options to four-year institutions

Union photo by Ashley Duong

Nathanial Carle, a senior at Fort Madison High School, is taking classes at SCC. Carle hopes to work for local manufacturing plant, Siilgan, after he finishes the industrial maintenance technology program at the college
Union photo by Ashley Duong Nathanial Carle, a senior at Fort Madison High School, is taking classes at SCC. Carle hopes to work for local manufacturing plant, Siilgan, after he finishes the industrial maintenance technology program at the college

With all-time low unemployment rates, manufacturers in Iowa are continuing to face challenges with recruitment, which have been further complicated by a skills gap that has emerged. Programs from community colleges across southeast Iowa are attempting to help fill that labor gap by providing various programs focused on industrial technologies and trades.

Andy Brainard, a welding instructor for Indian Hills Community College said he noticed a push in the 1990s to funnel students into four-year institutions after high school, which lead to fewer and fewer students choosing to explore trades or vocational schools.

“Part of it was school pushed postsecondary so hard that there weren’t a lot of young people that were learning these trades. Pushing kids to go to a four-year has carried on pretty heavy but I think they’re starting to understand that manufacturing is starved for skilled laborers,” Brainard said, “As far as welding goes, [the skills gap] is a fact.”

Brainard noted with the looming retirement of the baby boomer generation, who have traditionally filled skilled positions for the last 30 years, there has been more of a concerted effort to get students to consider “non-traditional” career paths.

The welding instructor teaches a dual-credit course to students at Cardinal, Van Buren and Fairfield High School through Indian Hills. Since the dual-credit program began about six years ago, class sizes have almost tripled from about 16 students to 45. Brainard said giving high school students an opportunity to explore different career opportunities has led to more students entering careers in manufacturing. In addition to welding, Indian Hills provides courses in machine and automotive technology as well as robotics and automation. Students who begin in the dual-credit program as juniors get a welding diploma at the end of their senior year.

“Not everyone needs to go to college. Some people are just mechanically inclined. They may not be the person who can sit down and solve calculus problems, but they can tear something apart and put it back together better than it started,” he said. In addition to teaching skilled trade courses, the college also has good relationships with local companies like John Deere and Vermeer Iowa, who often offer internships, apprenticeships and jobs to students.

Brainard said students are also now considering manufacturing careers not only out of interest but by seeing and following the example of other students.

“I call it the little brother factor. These younger students are seeing their siblings go into it and make good money for a 18 to 19-year-old. They can leave school with no debt and can stay in the area and hopefully raise their families. These programs not only help students get a job but it keeps them in the area,” he said.

Brainard said focusing on younger students is an advantage for manufacturing companies as well.

“It’s got to be better for employers because they have retention factors that have got to be enormous. They’re going to hire a kid that’s maybe 19 or 20 years old, who have a skilled trade, and keep them 40 years as an employee,” he said, “Honestly if you think about it, looking at, retention side of things, if a student is hired in as a welder today, they could be running department for them down the road — the possibilities are endless.”

Jeron Lindsay, an industrial maintenance technology instructor for Southeastern Community College’s (SCC) Keokuk Campus, said attracting and getting high school students involved with the colleges’ programs are also a current focus. Last Thursday, the college held an event to introduce students to the programs offered at SCC.

“We have about 50 to 52 interested high school students who will learn about the programs here,” Lindsay said.

The industrial maintenance technology instructor echoed that local companies are having a hard time finding people with the necessary skills to fill positions.

“That’s part of what employers are saying. They can’t find people with the skills that they need. They have people applying for a job but there might not be any that really fill the need. They have total input into what we teach here,” he said.

In following the advice of employers, Lindsay said the program at SCC has grown and changed to fit changing needs.

“A lot of companies are going fully automated so we just started this automation and robotics program about four years ago,” he said.

But beyond the technical skills, Lindsay said the program really focuses on teaching students skills that make them employable.

“That’s what I tell high school students who come out here: you need to learn skills that make you employable. You need skills to have a job and the more skills you have and the more education you have and the more experience you have, the more money you’re going to make,” he explained.

Currently, at the Keokuk Campus, a program with Fort Madison High School allows students to take courses at SCC at no personal cost. Seniors Black Algrim and Nathanial Carle started in the program as juniors.

Algrim, have taken five classes with the programs and is currently enrolled in mechanical drive systems. Because he’s taken so many classes ahead of time, Algrim said he only needs one more year to receive his diploma. After his year at SCC, the high schooler plans to go straight into the workforce.

“I like mechanical things, you fix things, put things together. My freshman and sophomore year, I took a lot of the auto classes at the high school and then they offered me this and it’s a lot of hands-on stuff. I’ve never considered going to a traditional four-year, it’s just not for me,” he said.

Carle, is currently in the pumps class, also said he’s never really considered going to a four-year institution. The high school senior currently has his heart set on working for Silgan, a manufacturing company that produces packaging goods.

“I’ve toured the plant twice, I kind of understand how it works,” the high school senior said, something he was able to do through the SCC program.

“I’m more interested in mechanics and engineering. I enjoy the complication and problem solving because throughout all these courses, you’re dealing with challenges of if you mess up, you need to figure out where you went wrong and it’s just like that in the actual plants,” he said.