GRAND RAPIDS, MI – U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, held a discussion Wednesday, Aug. 30, with West Michigan business, education, and labor leaders about how to better meet the ongoing challenge employers have finding enough skilled workers to fill positions.
Stabenow, who is on the tail end of a week-long series of workforce discussions across the state, also got input from students and parents in attendance at the Kent Career Technical Center.
“When we talk about going forward and getting skills, it is not all about four-year colleges,” Stabenow said. “There are a variety of careers and jobs beyond high school that involve skills but don’t necessarily mean going to a four-year college.”
“Not every young person is interested in getting a four-year college degree. It’s important that they know there are great jobs in professional skilled trades and technical careers.”
After visiting over 110 different small businesses around Michigan, Stabenow said she’s found that the number one issue of every small business having the skilled workers that they need.
By 2025, she said the National Association of Manufacturers estimates that there will be a need for 3.5 million manufacturing jobs and there won’t be enough workers to fill two million of them.
DeWys Manufacturing CEO Jon DeWys told Stabenow that it is important to start exposing young people to experiences in manufacturing and skilled trades early to bring relevancy.
“We need to focus on the foundational skills because when they come into my factory or go on a concrete job they can’t learn all the different skills but they need to have the foundation, they have got to be problem solvers and show up to work on time,” he said.
Kenowa Hills Public Schools’ STEM Academy is housed at DeWys Manufacturing, giving students hands-on experience.
DeWys and Hugh Coward, president of the West Michigan Construction Alliance, were among those who spoke about barriers to engaging young people early in high school.
For example, participants cited the federal requirement for young people to be at least 18 to be involved in an apprenticeship.
“I really want to look at what we should be doing to be more flexible to create more of those opportunities,” said Stabenow, about the age restriction that has been raised in other communities.
Stabenow, co-chair of the Bipartisan Senate Manufacturing Caucus, is getting input from her business tour and workforce discussions about ways to strengthen legislation she plans to reintroduce this fall – the New Skills for New Jobs Act.
She first introduced the measure in 2015 that builds on successful job training partnerships between community colleges and local businesses to help close the skills gap and support businesses ready to hire.
“We are training the next generation of skilled tradesman every day in our earn-while-you-learn programs that provide great wages, health care, pensions, and no college debt,” Coward said.
Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink said serving the community and its workforce needs is an import role of the college.
“Our collaborative relationships are critical to ensuring that our educational opportunities are accessible and relevant,” said Pink, who said those at the table are already partners in addressing workforce needs.
“Being responsive to the needs of our community will benefit all involved- our employer partners, the skilled workers we train and West Michigan as a whole.”
Pink spoke about the early middle college program launched this school year with the Kent ISD that offers students the opportunity to earn college certificates in advanced manufacturing fields. He said the middle college concept should be used to help support industry partners.
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Stabenow said she wants to develop opportunities, recruit young people and convince parents that there are wonderful opportunities in manufacturing, skilled trades, medical technology and other fields available they may not be considering.
Ravel Bowman, a senior at Kent Innovation High School, encouraged the panel to use social media more to share the cool and innovative opportunities available in manufacturing and skilled trades with teenagers. He used Snapchat as an example.
Parents in the room said they didn’t know early enough about some of the career options available in the trades.
“We need to be educating parents and students about career options a lot earlier than we currently do,” said Joy Jones, who has daughter who is a senior at Comstock Park High School, who is in the tech center’s Health Science Early College Academy.
John Kraus, principal of the Kent Career Technical Center, which is on the campus of Kent ISD, said the tech center has 2,400 students from districts across the county engaged in their 22 programs.
He took Stabenow on a tour of the center’s Megatronics, Information Technology and 3D animation programs.
“There has to be career awareness and exploration opportunities for all students,” he said. “You can be successful if you are interested and motivated around the content.”
Kraus said their students are learning content as well as those soft skills DeWys spoke of that will help them to advance in an organization.
Nearly 40 people attended the workforce discussion, including Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff, Muskegon Area ISD Superintendent Jon Severson, Muskegon Community College President Dale Nesbary, and school district superintendents from Grand Rapids, Kenowa Hills and Northview.
Some other manufacturers and labor leaders present were: Robert Knittel, president of Metal Flow Corporation in Holland; Jay Dunwell, president of Wolverine Coil Spring in Grand Rapids; and Bill Kenny, president of West Michigan Building Trades.
Stabenow also held discussions in Warren, Flint and Perry this week. She intends to also visit Traverse City and Marquette.