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Workforce leaders talk how to grow skilled trades pipeline to 10,000+ workers annually

Thursday, April 25, 2024 by Chad Swiatecki

In February 2021, when a deep winter freeze caused burst pipes in homes and businesses all over Austin, a city staffer looking for available plumbers called Tamara Atkinson, CEO of Workforce Solutions Capital Area and one of the local experts in training for skilled trades jobs.

The news she had for them wasn’t good.

“They said, ‘Tamara, pipes are bursting all over Austin. We need at least 200 plumbers to go out and help both businesses and residents fix their pipes to stop the water flooding into their homes. Where can I find 200 plumbers?’” Atkinson recalled Wednesday during a panel discussion on the shortage of skilled workers in the Austin area. “I said with as straight of a voice and face as I could, ‘With all due respect, we should have started at least two years ago.’”

During the most recent Urban Land Institute Austin session, Atkinson and other leaders in workforce training shared the realities of the local economy, which will need more than 10,000 new skilled workers every year for roughly a decade. Those workers will help to carry out construction and production on major projects such as the Interstate 35 reconstruction, the Project Connect mass transit system, the expansion of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and the assorted semiconductor manufacturing plants across the region that collectively represent tens of billions of dollars in investment.

Several times, talk turned to the city’s recent establishment of a new infrastructure training academy, which is intended to address the growing need for construction workers throughout the area.

Panelist Nestor Ho, chief legal officer of Silicon Labs, said the current employment imbalance shows there are 62,000 jobs available for 52,000 people who are classified as unemployed.

Ho said much of that gap can be attributed to the previous lack of channeling middle school students toward promising careers in skilled trades occupations that routinely pay more than $100,000 per year.

“The kids who do not get some form of advanced qualification, be it welding or whatever it is, something like three-quarters of them will not make a living wage,” he said. “They’ll come out, their unemployment rate jumps through the sky and they will not make a living wage. So get to them early, support your schools and make the pipeline … it has to be consistent.”

Norris Sebastian, career and technical education director for Del Valle ISD, said companies in need of specific skills such as welding need to establish routine communication and resources with local schools and take steps to make those jobs look as appealing as possible to the parents of young teens.

“If you partner with the ISDs locally and start having that conversation in the eighth grade and then again in the ninth grade, 10th grade, 11th grade, 12th grade, you can help us build the pipeline,” he said. “We need partners to help influence what specificity you need on your jobs. Texas Education Agency – it gives us a real broad scope of things that students should learn while they’re in a program of study, but we want to train with specificity for what you need. And we have the capacity to do that in most of our high schools in the region.”

With current training programs able to produce only about 3,000 of the 10,000-plus new trades workers needed per year, Atkinson said major steps need to be made to attract women – who currently represent only 14 percent of infrastructure workers – as well as other underrepresented groups. She said that will require new thinking about offering child care and other social services that have moved from being seen as perks to essential ingredients of economic development.

“The only way we’re going to close the gap is if we as an industry embrace workers that historically we have not attracted or retained in these different industries,” she said. “It means we’re going to need to have courageous conversations about what it takes to support all workers in the workplace.”

Photo by httpshotlinee24h.shopplumber-kuwait, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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