Pipefitter Percy Johnson is trying to locate his successor, but time is running out for the 62-year-old year-old, who plans to retire by next year.
And he’s not alone.
With hundreds of skilled trades professionals like Johnson nearing retirement from jobs with average annual earnings from $60,000 to $90,000, the need is urgent and the door is wide open for his successors.
The challenge is changing the common misconceptions that working in skilled trades and manufacturing is dangerous, dirty, dull and low-skill. Those perceptions have turned off many people and caused many parents to steer their children away from that career.
Skilled trades work today is none of those things. In fact, skilled trade workers have some of the most important jobs in America. They work in clean plants on rewarding projects, have a high skill level with high job security, and are very well educated with a commitment to continuous learning.
Johnson and others who are retiring soon want you to know choosing skilled- trades can provide you with the same opportunity for a great life they’ve had in their careers.
Here’s how to get into skilled trades.
The first thing you need to do is sign up for a pre-apprentice training program. They are often free and can be found at community colleges or organizations that help prepare for the testing. Once you’ve completed the required training, you apply for an apprenticeship.
“You don’t get into that college debt,” says Johnson, who currently serves as the community action program chairman for UAW Local 22 in Detroit. “When you get into an apprenticeship program, they pay for your classes while you’re going to school. While you’re getting your journeyman card you’re getting paid and you’re putting yourself into that $60,000-$90,000 bracket. Stay focused and be ready when they call you to get into those programs.”
He points out it’s a golden time to get into an apprentice program. With all the development work in Michigan and the number of people retiring in manufacturing and construction trades, more skilled people are needed to fill the coming void. Skilled trade jobs represent about one-third of Michigan’s employment base, with more than 8,300 jobs currently available, says the State of Michigan.
Governor Snyder has made training and getting people interested in skilled trades his top economic development priority. Last October, he announced a $50 million grant program to help Michigan community colleges purchase equipment required for educational programs in high-wage, high-skill, and high-demand occupations. Notable schools leading the charge are Henry Ford College, Oakland Community College, and Macomb Community College. They have been awarded a portion of those funds to get Michigan students trained, not just for current skilled-trades jobs, but for future jobs as well.
Detroit might be a good place to start. It has a leg up on everybody right now because there don’t seem to be any pre-apprentice programs outside of Detroit, Johnson says. “I haven’t been able to find one yet. I even have my state congressman looking into it.”
Getting people into skilled trades will help improve Detroit and its neighborhoods.
“With double digit unemployment in our city, we must use all means to get our people working,” says City Council President Brenda Jones, who chairs Detroit’s Skilled Trades Task Force.
Jones, a former union president, saw the importance of tradespeople in the workforce and started the task force. It aligns tradespeople with developers and projects and urges projects to meet the city’s employment standard of 51 percent Detroiters as skilled trades.
Her task force promotes apprenticeship opportunities for those 18 years of age and older, introduces middle and high school youth to trades opportunities and looks to grow the ranks of women to become involved in the trades.
All of the local unions and women organizations throughout the metro Detroit area are also encouraging women to get involved in skilled trades apprenticeships, says Mildred (Millie) Hall, president, Metro-Detroit Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW).
“In our coalition, we have a young women’s task force, for (ages) 30 and younger,” she says. “We talk about the opportunities and really encourage them to get into apprenticeship programs and to be college bound. We encourage women to get into a field they know they’re interested in. If you’re interest in it, you’ll put your heart in it, and you’ll be successful.”
Attracting future talent to skilled trades is not only crucial to Detroit. It is essential to the future of Michigan, its employers and its residents. Filling the void caused by retirements will keep companies, and their work, here.
“A lot of your journeymen like me are getting ready to retire,” says Johnson, “You’ve got a big void where you’re not going to have enough of the younger journeymen taking over for the older ones getting ready to leave out. We’re at that fork in the road.”
You can make Johnson a happy man. Take the fork in the road and fill one of the projected 6,700 skilled trade job openings each year through 2022. The pay is great and so is the career.
Photos unless otherwise noted by Tim Galloway