Devon Ramsey, 19, has a great job. He’s just barely one year out of high school, making well over $75,000 a year, has a new truck, no student loan debt and is investigating retirement plans. He’s happy with his position in life so far, but also is a combination of angry and frustrated with an education system he says is dismissive of skilled trades.
Ramsey, now a welder working as a pipefitter in Hennipen, Ill. (southwest of Chicago), expressed that frustration in an early 2014 letter to Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools. He was upset that Gooden did not agree to participate in the New Tech program – a project-based learning curriculum – founded in 1996 and adopted by 160 schools in 26 states. Van Buren and the Rogers public school districts are among the 160 schools.
“I’m sorry to say sir that I don’t see your way of educating succeeding. I look around each day at my school associates and see mediocrity, disinterest and out right boredom,” Ramsey noted in his letter to Gooden. “Fifteen years ago and so on men knew how to work on their cars, how to change blades on lawn mowers, knew about carpentry, knew how to use machines. Now they have become useless and dependent on the older generation to do things for them.”
Gooden responded by noting that students in the Fort Smith district have access to numerous skill development programs.
“Your concerns about access to technical education are right on track. While some opportunities are available, there is a need for more programs of this type. Students in Fort Smith are fortunate to have access to a number of programs including those offered at the Western Arkansas Technology Center (WATC) at UAFS during their high school years,” Gooden said.
In a recent interview, Ramsey admitted he was angry at the system when he wrote the letter, but still believes Gooden and others in public school leadership around the country push the college path and neglect or provide too few resources for skilled trade awareness.
“Yes, I was mad. … I want my generation to succeed, to be builders, to be leaders. I don’t see that right now. I don’t see that push from them (education officials),” he said.
FROM TROUBLE TO REVELATION
For a time, Ramsey’s drive was in the wrong direction. He was a good student and would have been able to attend college, but began making bad choices between his 10th and 11th grade years. He admits to getting into trouble with “kids who had a silver spoon in their mouth” and could afford a little trouble. His parents, Bev and Stan, moved to separate Devon from the trouble. Stan, who sells industrial equipment, and Bev, a cancer survivor who sells clothing for cancer patients, decided their son needed a job. He began working on construction projects.
“I started working with Rick and Booger. They took me under their wings and I started working construction … and almost from the start it was like a rush and an exhilaration to build things,” Ramsey said, admitting that he didn’t expect to enjoy what was intended to be punishment.
Looking back, however, he said the common form of punishment in his peer group would not have taught him a lesson.
“I thank them (parents) for making me do that, to get to work. … They could have taken my smartphone or car keys, which is what you see happen with most of these kids, but that doesn’t teach them anything,” he said.
What Ramsey learned was that the college path wasn’t for him.
Bev and Stan were shocked initially when their son said he was going to the Tulsa Welding School instead of college. Others were also surprised.
“My barber chewed me out for 15 minutes when I told him I was going to be a welder,” Ramsey said with a smile.
He finished welding school in about seven months. He wasn’t able to attend the graduation in Tulsa because he was hired immediately for a welding job in Springfield, Mo. There, he quickly learned about the “pipefitter network all over the country” and in about four months landed a better job near Donaldsonville, La.
His newest job in Illinois moves him even further up the pay scale. In less than a year after graduating from Tulsa Welding School, Ramsey faces a reality in which he could potentially earn $100,000 a year. His stop after a late May interview with The City Wire was to meet with a financial planner to talk about retirement fund options.
“If you do this right, you could work for 20 years and then retire and take it easy,” said Ramsey, who, based on his own assessment, could retire before he hits 40.
But Ramsey believes too few are taking advantage of the same career and financial opportunity he enjoys because they aren’t made aware of it. He estimated that 20% of his peer group in high school would make better career choices if the system exposed them to options other than college.
“It’s (skilled trade schools, vocational education) looked down upon by them (school officials) and that’s what bothers me. … We need to wake up and see that the system is not working. These kids are coming out of college without a job but with these crazy student loan debts. And, again, I know I get mad, but what I’m doing is proof that there could be a better life for them,” Ramsey said.
Devon Ramsey isn’t a youthful prophet or a lone passionate missionary. He’s an example. His reality and his message are nothing new to human resources managers around the world. And addressing the “skills gap” is the focus of celebrity Mike Rowe’s mikeroweWORKS Foundation.
Rowe, who became famous with the “Dirty Jobs” television series, uses his “Profoundly Disconnected” campaign to tackle “the absurd belief that a four-year degree is the only path to success.” That disconnect was Rowe’s message during an April 2014 address before the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources committee. (The video of his address is a the end of this story.)
“And still, we lend money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back so they can buy expensive four-year degrees and pursue jobs that don’t exist anymore. That’s the legacy of a society that embraces a cliché,” Rowe said.
Rowe’s foundation provides scholarships to schools around the country, including Midwest Technical Institute, Tulsa Welding School, The Refrigeration School and Universal Technical Institute. He told the House committee members that since 2008 he has tried to challenge “stigmas and stereotypes” created in the education community about vocational training.
“The skilled trades, once held in high esteem, are now seen as some sort of vocational consolation prize,” Rowe said during the committee hearing.
ManpowerGroup reported May 18 that 32% of U.S. employers report having a hard time fill job openings because of talent shortages. That is down 8% from the May 2014 report. Globally, the percentage of employers having trouble finding skilled workers rose from 36% in 2014 to 38% in 2015.
ManpowerGroup surveyed 41,748 employers in 42 countries and territories during the first quarter of 2015 to explore the extent of talent shortages within the global labor market.
“Inadequate training and negative stereotypes relating to skilled trades are further fueling a dangerous shortage of skilled workers,” Jeffery Joerres, Manpower Inc. chairman and CEO, stated in the report. “Employers and governments need to bring honor back to the skilled trades. They must look ahead to forecast their future skill demands in this area and start working to alleviate this now.”
In the energy sector, Manpower reported a “double squeeze” of skilled workers at entry level and senior positions. The factors causing the squeeze are:
• An aging workforce, creating a shortage of experienced talent;
• Rapid advances in technology that are changing skill requirements; and
• Limited focus on STEM education, resulting in fewer interested and qualified entry-level job seekers.
Ramsey doesn’t need to see survey results. He may not be aware of the Manpower survey. He sees firsthand the skilled trade workforce demographic.
“I haven’t seen anyone younger than probably 25 out there … and the shame is that the older crew, these older guys, they are dying to give their knowledge away,” Ramsey said. “What I think that if this keeps going, then in 10 or 15 years what you will see is that the American labor force will be hurting. … You can have all the chiefs in the world, but if you don’t have enough Indians to build the tents, then nothing happens.”
Ramsey said a few older Americans are leaving careers to learn a trade. He met a dentist – Ramsey estimates he was around 50 years old – at the Tulsa Welding School who was switching careers. He predicts more of that as people see that a skilled trade may be a good way to pay off college loan debt.
Welding and pipefitting work, especially in the energy sector, may not be the best job for married people because of the long hours and time away from home, Ramsey admitted. However, he knows of several fathers who work hard nine to 10 months a year, make “really good money,” and then are able to afford to a lot of travel during the summer with their families. He also said “shop jobs” are available that don’t pay as much as location work, but they allow a mother or father to have relatively normal working hours where they live and make more than $50,000 a year with good benefits.
On that point, Ramsey encourages women to consider the trades. His belief is that women are often better with detailed skilled work.
“Women are some of the best welders. If I had the choice between a woman welder and a man, and they had the same years of experience, I’ll pick the woman every time,” Ramsey said.
SHOW THEM THE PAY STUB
Ramsey also thinks high schools should pick people like him to talk to students about career options. What would he tell high school students?
“First, I would show them my pay stubs,” Ramsey said with a grin.
He also would be “honest and tell them it can be hard work,” but the rewards and opportunities should be considered with and compared to those possible from a college path. He also would share the intangible aspects of skilled work.
“Look, I get to travel all over, and have traveled, and I get paid for it. And there is a diversity in the people you meet. … I’ve met people from not only all over our country but all over the world. And the other thing is, I think, that you grow up and you mature a lot faster as a person. It can be hard and dangerous work at times … but, you know, that can be a good thing. It has been for me.”