Current worker shortages nationwide have begun changing community conversations about the future of the next generation and the value of trade-based occupations, according to Kate Lufkin with the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.
On Wednesday, Flathead High School sophomores, juniors and seniors got the opportunity to explore some of those trades through hands-on learning with professors at Flathead Valley Community College and tours of local businesses.
Dubbed “Pursuing the Trades,” the event, organized by Lufkin, Mike Kelly of the Flathead High School Career Center and the Occupational Trades Department at FVCC, offered an educational first look at some potential careers for the students selected to attend.
“I dare you to look around and find something that wasn’t manufactured,” Lufkin said. “You can’t do it. Everything has to be made and somebody has to make it.”
Today’s job market, according to Lufkin, supports seven trade jobs for every one position that requires a master’s degree.
The majority of the students in attendance, according to Lufkin, expressed little to no interest in pursuing a college career, but show aptitude and interest in more vocational skills.
FVCC offered a unique opportunity for those students to learn about some of the training, equipment and real-life applications for trades such as welding, heavy equipment operation and electrical work.
Contrary to the stigma sometimes placed on manufacturing and trade jobs in the past, Lufkin said skilled workers in those fields have a better chance of finding a high-paying job earlier in life and avoiding some of the struggles plaguing college degree seekers.
Trade workers typically spend less time in school, with most positions requiring a minimum high school diploma or GED and maximum of a two-year associate’s degree or certificate. This means they also accrue less debt than a college student.
Some trade skills, such as those taught in the Occupational Trade Department at FVCC, also equip students to enter positions that could earn them a starting wage of around $50,000 a year, according to Lufkin.
“Just because you don’t go to college doesn’t mean you’re worthless. You’re actually really, really valuable,” Lufkin said. “Especially these kids that aren’t necessarily thinking about [college] don’t feel like they have a sense of purpose, that they’re valued, that there’s an option for them.”
“This is just an attempt to show them that’s not true,” she added.
FOLLOWING AN orientation and safety briefing, students split up into 12 different breakout sessions, each offering around half a dozen students the chance to try their hand at plasma cutting, metalworking, non-destructive testing, heavy equipment simulations and driving or Computer Numerical Control machine operation.
Things got messy in the non-destructive testing lab where students, led by professor Blake Thompson, practiced magnetic particle testing.
Covered in red dust and displaying fascinated grins, students used electromagnets and iron shavings to find surface flaws in various mechanical parts.
Jack Morris, 18, experimented with the process of searching for flaws in a car part while taking time to marvel at the shapes he could create using the magnet and shavings.
Unsure of which trade he planned to pursue, Morris said he took the field trip as an opportunity to explore several in hopes of learning what interested him.
On the other side of the room, Vance Miller, 18, studiously bent over a metal cutout of an arrowhead clamped in a vice, shaping and filing down its rough edges.
Miller said his interests are primarily in woodworking, a skill he’s been developing for the last two years using the tools bequeathed to him by his great-great-uncle. He said he plans to attend FVCC in the future, likely to learn more about the trade.
Each student was limited to trying two trades on Wednesday, but following the two hour-long sessions, they were encouraged to talk with one another about what they learned and experienced.
After lunch, all 65 students boarded their buses and split once again into groups to tour one of four local businesses, including Weyerhaeuser, Applied Materials, Central Heating, Cooling, Plumbing and Electrical, and a Terry Homes build site.
There the students witnessed many of the same machines and equipment they’d seen at the college put to use in a real-world setting.
Donning a hardhat, reflective vest and headset, Miller toured the Weyerhaeuser facility with a group of his classmates for an up-close look at how the plant operates.
During a briefing preceding the tour, Weyerhaeuser employees informed them of the potential perks of working for the company, including pay, benefits and opportunities for advancement.
According to the presenter, entry-level workers as young as 18 can join the company making over $17 per hour, with opportunities to learn more skills and advance over time.
“A ‘blue collar job’ is not gross and dirty and dangerous and whatever anymore,” Lufkin said. “All of these places, general manufacturing jobs, they pay higher than any other wage in the state.”
In an effort to combat workforce shortages in the Flathead, Lufkin said she hopes to continue offering and improving upon the “Pursuing the Trades” event, over time incorporating more businesses, more schools and more students.
She said she would love to start including middle school students as they first start developing their interests and would also like to see more girls participate.
With the success of the first event, Lufkin said she feels the solution to many of Montana’s workforce problems lies in a continuous dialogue between schools and businesses.
“Workforce is like the No. 1 issue in our state right now,” she said. “We’ve turned a one-day program into essentially a year’s worth of workforce.”
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.