Summit speakers: Skills gap in trades could stunt economic growth, training programs need to change

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 266 views 

Industrial workforce advocate, actor and screenwriter John Ratzenberger, known mostly for his role as Cliff Clavin on the long-running sitcom Cheers, was the keynote speaker at the Northwest Arkansas Workforce Summit.

Northwest Arkansas is one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation but a lack of skilled labor necessary for a modern and evolving economy could stunt that growth. That was the consensus position among the speakers at the Northwest Arkansas Workforce Summit.

Ted Abernathy, an economic development strategist and managing partner of Economic Leadership LLC, set the stage of the two-day conference (Nov. 7-8) with a sobering talk about the root cause of the giant mismatch between employers and the talent pool. Abernathy said never before have so many people been confused by what comes next.

He said globally there are roughly 1 billion more people looking for work than than there are jobs for them. Abernathy said this oversupply of workers will get worse as more jobs become automated in the future.

“Most job candidates think they are qualified. Employers say they are not,” he said. “We knew 50 years ago we needed to change the way people are educated and trained, but change has been slow,” Abernathy said.

Dr. Charisse Childers, director of Arkansas Department of Career Education, said training today rarely matches what state and national employers need. She said most funding linked to training programs has been tied to certain criteria, much of it out of date.

Abernathy did credit secondary schools in Northwest Arkansas with doing a better job than most to prepare students to go directly into the workforce or apprenticeship training opportunities upon graduation. He said more has to be done.

“it’s hard for educators to teach for an industry’s needs tomorrow or three years from now, when the industry itself might not be sure what it will need,” he said. “I do know this, communities that grow talent, train it, retrain it and recruit it will have a competitive advantage of those that don’t.”

John Riggs IV, chairman of Little Rock-based J.A. Riggs Tractor Company, spoke about the need for diesel mechanics, aka “Mobile Technology Specialists.” He said the notion that diesel work is a dirty job just isn’t true.

“The shops where our diesel mechanics work is cleaner than most kitchens. Even the smallest dirt particle can wreak havoc on hydraulic systems. … Our industry will need to replace 77,000 diesel mechanics by 2024 according to Labor Department and Truck Centers of America in Arkansas said they needed 10,000 diesel techs immediately. This gap creates a $2.4 billion loss to the industry each year, according to a report from William & Mary College,” Riggs shared.

He said junior high school students need more chances to know about the trades, the high income and job opportunities associated with industrial trade skills.

“if you were told to pick a challenging field that you could train for in two years and be earning mid-5-digit incomes thereafter, approaching 6-digit incomes in five years. Who wouldn’t be interested?” Riggs said. “That’s what the trades can do.”

Industrial workforce advocate, actor and screenwriter John Ratzenberger, known mostly for his role as Cliff Clavin on the long-running sitcom Cheers, was the keynote speaker at the Summit on Monday. Ratzenberger is also a craftsman who worked as a journeyman carpenter and oyster boat crewman.

Ratzenberger said he grew up in middle-class family in Connecticut and his parents worked in manufacturing. He went to college and majored in English but first honed his carpentry skills from age 14 on. He said tinkering has alway been in his nature.

He said the lack of interest in trade professions was lost along the way. Personally he credits the downfall on what he calls the Woodstock Generation. Ratzenberger, at age 19, was on the crew that built the stage for Woodstock. He said the Woodstock generation had preconceived ideas that college was the only choice for bright futures. The mindset infiltrated politics, education and cultural awareness, according to Ratzenberger.

“Today we have come down to everybody gets a trophy and a generation that feels somewhat entitled that’s now entering the workforce. If I had known this would happen I might have rigged that stage to fall,” Ratzenberger joked.

He said 58 is the average age of those who work with their hands in the trades. Without builders he said the nation could resemble a Third-World country.

“But there is time to fix this problem,” he said. “Kids have to be allowed to tinker, build, teardown and rebuild. The way we did with soapbox racers back in the day,” Ratzenberger said.

Abernathy agreed, but he said kids tinkering with digital applications must be required to teach their parents and grandparents as well.

Riggs said there is not a one size fits all approach to the broad skills gap. His company has employed many different tactics to help recruit future talent including holding summer camps for children to teach them about careers and opportunities with big Tonka Toys or Caterpillar machinery.