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Is there really a stigma against blue collar jobs in Minnesota? It’s complicated.

For those on the front lines of workforce development in Minnesota, the conversation around the notion of a trades ‘stigma’ is complex.

plumbing tools
Students are often attracted to jobs in construction, manufacturing and other trades by the positives such as high salaries, the prospect of lower debt and the promise of working with their hands.
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

If one thing united Democrat Tim Walz and Republican Jeff Johnson in their campaigns for Minnesota governor, it was a belief in the value of jobs in skilled trades — plumbing, electrical work, carpentry and the like — and that those careers currently get a bad rap.

At a September debate in Wayzata about the state’s shortage of workers — a problem expected to get rapidly worse in coming years as baby boomers retire — both candidates praised students who attend two-year or technical education programs. They also hoped that a cultural shift would erase a stigma they believe is attached to blue-collar careers.

Walz, who was elected last week, even said if his young son Gus decided to be an electrician, it would be the “happiest day of my life” because, as Walz put it: “I know there’s employability, I know there’s a skill set, I’ll know it’s where his intelligence lies and the genius of the nobleness of trades.”

Johnson decried what he said was a belief, particularly in the Twin Cities, “that if a kid doesn’t get a four-year degree, he or she is just not that successful.”

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For those on the front lines of job placement in Minnesota, however, the conversation around the notion of a stigma is complex. Many say one does exist, but is not as strong as it once was. And though there is a debate over how much hiring strategies and school guidance practices contribute to a stigma and exacerbate the recruiting crunch in trade industries, some see any perceived bias as a distraction from a far bigger problem: math — the fact that retirees across the economy are being replaced by a far smaller workforce.

Awareness issues

A 2018 survey of Minnesota construction companies by Autodesk and the Associated General Contractors of America found just how dire the hiring situation can get in at least some trades. More than 70 percent of the firms surveyed were having a hard time filling open hourly positions.

Bob Kill, president of Enterprise Minnesota, a consulting organization for manufacturers said a stigma against jobs in his industry is a challenge. “But I’d say as an industry we’re further along than a lot of the elected officials really fully appreciate, because they’re not looking at it in the depth that we are,” he said.

There’s no denying that many involved in career development, especially in trades industries, widely believe there is some truth to the notion of a stigma against the trades.

Kathy Kittel, the career and technical education (CTE) supervisor at St. Paul Public Schools, said her husband nudged their children from a young age to attend four-year colleges ― even decorating their rooms with Wisconsin Badgers wallpaper. He had jumped straight from high school to a “really valuable job with high benefits and security” at the post office, but later regretted not attending a four-year school, Kittel said.

“I think that probably happens for other students, their parents had a particular experience and now they want better for their students,” she told MinnPost.

But many involved in educating or recruiting potential employees for CTE, including Kittel, see those attitudes fading with time, and not widespread in schools or society. In short: Students are, in fact, often attracted to jobs in construction, manufacturing and other trades by the positives such as high salaries, the prospect of lower debt and the promise of working with their hands; they just need to be more aware of what career paths exist and get better connected to them.

Kittel said one cause is that over the years, secondary schools made a shift toward strict traditional academics and preparing children for typical college paths. CTE programming and advocacy is still catching up.

“From my perspective, I think we need to do a better job promoting what’s being done in CTE right now,” Kittel said. “I think that we’ve been taking a backseat to the marketing that’s done for four year colleges.”

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There is some evidence to back up the idea that lack of awareness is a significant issue. The top two recommendations of a 2014 state task force report on career and technical education focused on counselors and employers in the trades doing better to connect with students about careers.

Others have made similar findings around the country.

A 2016 study by Mississippi State University found that while state residents “recognized the potential value” of career and technical education, nearly half of 403 adults surveyed couldn’t name a CTE program offered by a local school. Most had an incomplete knowledge about the range of careers that can be attained through CTE programs. (The survey also found some negative perceptions about CTE, such as that it’s essentially best for students who are poor, not able to get into college, or are otherwise disadvantaged.)

A 2017 report by Washington state’s auditor about their CTE system noted one huge barrier to filling empty jobs in trades was that “many students and their parents are unaware of the options available to them.”

Recognizing this, some have worked to shepherd more students into skilled trades.

Kill said some communities recognizing the high wages of manufacturing jobs have begun to make larger efforts to promote those careers. Several high schools, including White Bear Lake, have recently worked to implement new advanced manufacturing programs, which Kill said would likely not have been pursued in the past.

Brian Farmer, apprenticeship coordinator for local cement mason and plasterers unions, said “school after school” has asked him to come speak to students lately. He said at job fairs, he’s more often competing directly with universities for students. Farmer said he also has record numbers of people in his programs amid a construction boom in the Twin Cities.

“They’re starting to realize this is not an alternative to college; this is a viable career option,” he said of school counselors and students. “They can’t believe what we make. They can’t believe the benefits involved in a union format.”

Darren Ginther, assistant director of St. Paul Public School’s Office of College and Career Readiness, said the district has worked to implement curriculum for school counselors that is focused on preparing students for a range of post-high school options. Kittel said SPPS has beefed up their coordination with businesses, including a “Construct Tomorrow” events that feature hands-on job fair with trades representatives.

Marguerite Ohrtman, president elect of the Minnesota School Counselors Association, said course loads and requirements are still set up to keep children on track to get into four-year schools so students are not behind if they have any desire to attend one. But she also said counselors of today understand the value of jobs in the trades and work to include them in talks with students.

“Our ultimate goal is for students to be happy, healthy and have a plan for when they graduate whether that’s a four-year school a two-year school, cosmetology school a trade school ― whatever it may be,” Ohrtman said.

Industry’s role in hiring

Kittel, Farmer and others acknowledged there is more to be done in schools, but also more to be done by the trade industries themselves to attract workers and make them aware of how to get open jobs.

Donna Kusske, director of the Building Minnesota Apprenticeship Program, said she thinks some trades businesses have struggled to hire because of a history of using family connections for recruiting, a process that has systematically sidelined women and racial minorities who are interested in trades work. That practice is increasingly unworkable as the workforce shrinks and Minnesota’s population becomes more diverse, she said. Her organization focuses on boosting diversity in the trades.

Minnesota’s 2016 survey of workforce diversity found just 8 percent of construction workers were people of color — which ranked as the lowest in the state. “Traditionally a lot of the people involved in those careers had an uncle or a dad or someone they knew that worked as a plumber or an electrician, so they were aware of it,” Kusske said. “But a lot of the groups that we talked about ― women and minorities ― haven’t been represented.”

The report also found construction as one of the top industries actively working to increase its racial diversity, and some inroads have been reported. Tawanna Black, CEO and founder of the Center for Economic Inclusion, said that sustained effort on such recruiting can be followed by success: “Where you see employers being more inclusive and engaging to particular audiences, you’re going to see growth and when you don’t you don’t see growth.”

Of course, not every job served by career and technical education is the same. Nearly 20 percent of Minnesota’s manufacturing workforce identifies as nonwhite, which ranks near the top of the state, according to the report from the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Still, Steve Kalina, executive director of the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association, said his industry needs to work to attract employees, too.

At a recent event with school officials, industry leaders and state lawmakers at Anoka Technical College, Kalina said schools need to give manufacturers frank feedback when their shop is not attracting talent because they’re not a desirable place to work.

In other words, at least some of a perceived stigma may in some cases be earned. “As much as we say this isn’t the manufacturing of our grandfathers and the dark dingy greasy workplaces, a lot of them still are,” he said. “Way too many of them still are.”

Anoka Technical College's Machine Trades lab
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Students at Anoka Technical College's Machine Trades lab last Thursday. The college was hosting a tour for state lawmakers and industry leaders.
He wondered aloud why a student would go work at a subpar manufacturing company when they could work in a “pristine and clean” hospital or an office “where everything is ergonomically correct,” Kalina said.

In a follow-up interview, Kalina said he’s experimenting with new ways to make his business friendlier to young people, including by enhancing the role of machinists to give people in that job some engineering duties. Engineering is popular among students and an enhanced machinist job title comes with higher pay, Kalina said.

A numbers game

Kill, for one, maintains concern of a stigma against jobs in manufacturing and the trades is misplaced. Instead, it’s simply the number of people in the workforce that represents a more dire threat to manufacturers, he said. Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development data shows nearly 150,000 job vacancies in the state during the second fiscal quarter of 2018, compared to fewer than 100,000 people who are unemployed.

Kill noted in that environment, even nursing, often ranked as the country’s most trusted profession, has some hiring difficulties. “We still have challenges in front of us because of the overall shrinking workforce,” he said. “But we’re seeing communities band together in a way we hadn’t seen certainly 10 years ago and maybe even five years ago.”

That dedication represents a changing attitudes toward trades, he said. “Making something is cool again,” Kill said.