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'Tradesformers' aims to help build careers, combat talent shortage through apprenticeships

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Pitt County Schools students line up to get information on Tradesformers, a youth apprenticeship program that connects high school students with local trade industries.

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, March 21, 2019

A new partnership between businesses and local schools aims to transform the way teens view jobs in skilled trades.

Known as Tradesformers, the youth apprenticeship program is designed to connect students with trades that are facing a talent shortage.

Starting this summer, selected Pitt County Schools students will have a chance to begin work with one of three participating companies: Advance Mechanical, Piedmont Service Group or Pitt Electric. In an effort to introduce youth into what is a graying workforce, the local HVAC and electrical companies will work with the school system to provide students with on-the-job training, pay and a chance to earn advanced credentials and certifications.

“As time goes on, more and more of these folks are retiring,” Pitt County Schools Work-Based Learning Coordinator Simone Pate said of skilled trades workers. “There are not enough people that want to go into those careers.”

Workers age 45 and older made up an estimated 53 percent of the skilled trade workforce, which includes electricians, carpenters, welders, bricklayers, plumbers and masons. In its 2016-17 U.S. talent shortage survey, Manpower Group reported that skilled trades are the hardest jobs in the country to fill.

“Every year in the U.S., 7,000 people become electricians,” Pitt Electric President Ray Rutledge said in a Tradesformers video. “Every year in the us 10,000 licensed electricians retire. You don't have to be a math guru to realize we're losing them and we need more.”

Pate, who has worked with Rutledge and other industry executives for the last year to prepare Tradesformers for launch, said the new partnership is somewhat unique. Most of the state's pre-apprenticeship programs involve manufacturing.

“We're a little bit different,” she said. “We're kind of paving the way by doing more of the trades. No one's done much with the trades, but there's a huge need for the trades areas.”

While numerous factors have contributed to the shortage or workers, some experts point to the push for more high school graduates to seek four-year degrees rather than to consider training for trades.

“Four years isn't for everybody,” Pate said. “You may not be the kind of person to sit behind a desk. If you like to be outside or working with your hands, then this is a perfect opportunity for you.”

Rachel Davis of Advance Mechanical told dozens of students from three local high schools who came to Pitt Community College recently to learn about Tradesformers that with an average employee age of 48, her company expects to need see more than half its workforce retire within the next decade. The company is hoping that starting to begin training the next generation of workers, starting with high school juniors, before that happens.

“A lot of these companies, within the next five years are going to lose a huge part of their workforce because of retirement and they want someone to learn under a seasoned person,” Pate said. “They want to train some young people before their talent retires.”

Students qualify for the program based on academic, attendance and citizenship records and must have a driver's license and transportation to participate. Tuition waivers that can be applied to further education and training are available for high school students who enter an apprenticeship program while they are still in school.

But Pate said jobs in the trades need to be emphasized even for students who are not selected for Tradesformers. Outside of the program, there are career and technical education courses as well as job shadowing opportunities for students who have an interest.

“I think your average high school kid doesn't even know this exists,” she said. “If I went into any class in any high school and said, 'Who wants to go into HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning)?' They don't even know what it is.”

H.B. Moore, Piedmont Service Group vice president and general manager for Greenville, said many students are not aware of the salaries associated with skilled trades.

Researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that 30 million jobs in the U.S. do notrequire a bachelor’s degree and pay an average of $55,000 a year.

“Salaries are better than you expect if you're a hard worker,” said Moore, who obtained a bachelor's degree prior to pursuing HVAC training at a community college.

“These jobs that we're talking about don't get shipped overseas for somebody else to do,” he said. “They're growing.”

Tradesformers is seeking to grow as well. The program eventually hopes to add business partners in additional trades, such as plumbing and construction.

“It's a huge commitment for them to hire someone who's still in high school,” Pate said. “But when you invest in a student like this in high school and you kind of mold and mentor them and (give) on the job training, you end up with some of the best employees.”

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