Learning The Trade

Inside the mechatronics lab at the Lewis County Jefferson Community College Education Center in Lowville.

BY: Olivia Belanger
The Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) is embarking on its first capital improvement project in 50 years to compensate for the recent need for trade workers.

    According to a report issued by The Conference Board, a nonprofit business membership and research group, the economic growth over the past decade has improved conditions for blue-collar workers across the country. The document provides data showing that those in trade positions are able to demand higher wages due to labor shortages. 

    This reverses a decades-long trend in the U.S. jobs market; companies are now having a more difficult time finding blue-collar workers than white-collar workers. The report states companies can expect growing shortages in sectors that include transportation, health care support, manufacturing, agriculture, mining and construction. In addition to increasing wages, the report predicts that companies may have to expand their pools of potential workers. 

    As the U.S. population has attained more education, the group of working-age individuals with a bachelor’s degree has grown, while the number of those without one has shrunk. In addition, the Baby Boomer generation continues to retire in waves, with many currently holding blue-collar jobs. 

    Only adding to the challenge, since the mid-1990s millions of non-college graduates have left the labor force due to disability, and while the pool of blue-collar workers has shrunk, the demand for their services has continuously grown since the 2008 financial crisis. 

    Especially tight labor markets are in transportation, production and manufacturing and health care support. 

  • Transportation: As just one example, the rapid growth in online shopping is creating robust demand for delivery drivers. In addition, workers in transportation jobs tend to be older, a trend that has led to many retirements in recent years.
  • Production/Manufacturing: Between 2010-2018, fewer manufacturing jobs were off-shored and less productivity growth from automation took place than in the previous decade. This combination has led to continuous demand for U.S. workers. 
  • Health Care Support: The demand for health care support jobs, such as nursing aides and home health aides, has skyrocketed due to the proliferation of retiring Baby Boomers needing health services. 

    BOCES offices throughout the state offer these programs for young people, as well as adults. Those who staff the facilities and teach these classes understand the labor needs that industries have. Each day, BOCES centers in New York train individuals to launch successful careers in numerous industries, and we all benefit from this effort. 

    The $20 million project, overwhelmingly supported by voters in March 2018, will make much-needed improvements to allow the district to modernize its existing infrastructure, upgrade safety and security for students and faculty, bring its facilities into Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and improve existing utility and energy costs. 

    “The students who attend programs in these buildings each day will have a safer and better educational experience because of these wise investments and the life of the buildings will be extended for decades to come,” said Jefferson-Lewis BOCES Superintendent Stephen J. Todd. 

    Mr. Todd said in addition to the improvements taking place over the next two years, BOCES has also entered a partnership with Jefferson Community College (JCC) to share the brand new educational center Lewis County built in Lowville. 

    JCC and BOCES are splitting the annual cost of operating this 20,000 square-foot facility in Lowville, and BOCES will both house programs there — sharing space, sharing equipment and ensuring that its curricula is integrated — and provide students with a pipeline from their programs into JCC’s programs, if they choose. 

    This will, in turn, be able to help show the BOCES students the opportunities that lie ahead for them with their vocational training. 

    Starting in the fall, Mr. Todd said BOCES will be housing their engineering and design program there, side-by-side with JCC’s mechatronics program. BOCES’ transitions program and new vision health program will also be housed at JCC, according to Mr. Todd. 

    These programs offered are a good way to meet the demand for workers in these fields. 

    “People are coming to the realization that career and technical education is just as important and valuable as college,” Mr. Todd said. 

    Over the next decade, the extent of the challenges caused by blue-collar labor shortages will depend largely on three factors: to what extent employers can further automate blue-collar jobs, how many additional individuals are brought back into the labor force and how many workers move into blue-collar jobs from other parts of the labor market. As the report discusses, companies should consider the following actions to help alleviate current or potential shortages in the future:  

  • Invest in more automation: Many blue-collar jobs have the potential to become automated in the next decade. Food preparation, manufacturing and cleaning and maintenance occupations are particularly likely to be automated and, to some extent, already have been. 
  • For certain jobs, reduce education requirements: Amid tightening labor markets, many companies are expanding the supply of talent by lowering education requirements during recruitment and providing basic internal training. 
  • Find locations with greater availability of blue-collar labor: In some occupations, most notably manufacturing, employers have more discretion on where to locate operations and, in turn, shift some of the work to areas with increased availability of blue-collar labor.

    Aside from increased pay for employees and decreased profits for firms, key trends highlighted in the report are a narrowing of wage inequality, companies lowering their educational requirements, growing challenges with worker quality and more employees working from home. Companies will need to find ways to meet the growing demands that will be made upon them while maintaining sufficient profitability in their markets to sustain themselves and keep the economy growing.