Steelworkers for the Future: We’ll need more, but are they part of Trump’s plan?

Scott Paul Director, AAM

William Hill spent 25 years in the U.S. Navy. After leaving the service and a stint at a defense contractor he found himself back home again in Indiana and, aided by the G.I. bill, enrolled in Purdue University — known as “the cradle of astronauts” for its record of putting graduates into the space program.

Hill was there to study engineering, a Purdue specialty. He was decidedly not looking for a career in the steel mills that line Lake Michigan in northern Indiana.

“I thought it was the last thing I’m ever gonna do,” he recently told a panel forecasting American manufacturing’s future.

Then a professor introduced Hill to an apprenticeship program, offered through Purdue by ArcelorMittal, called Steelworker for the Future.

Through it, students partake in a 2 ½ year associate’s degree program — four semesters of classroom training, and 16 weeks of on-site training at an ArcelorMittal steel mill — that, if completed successfully, can end in a job offer from the company. ArcelorMittal even covers the cost of tuition.

Hill’s plans changed. He signed up. It would be a lot of work, but with a lot of reward: The jobs that await graduates pay well, are highly technical … and are completely out of reach for a person walking in off the street with only a high school diploma.

Hill still marvels at the technical proficiency a steelworking job required. “I had 25 years of advanced electronics training and six degrees when I reported to Burns Harbor (Indiana) and said, ‘hey, I want a job,’” he laughed. “They said, ‘no! You can’t handle it, kid.’

“After getting an engineering degree, I still had to go through a year of training before they would set me loose in the plant. And rightfully so. I probably could have used some more.”

Over the past year, President Trump has had a lot to say both about support for the growth of America’s steel industry, and about his desire to put 2 million new apprentices to work in industries like manufacturing, construction, healthcare, and information technology. On the first issue, the President has unfortunately been dragging his feet. On the latter, the president did sign an executive order and appoint an apprenticeship taskforce. But six months later, after two years of apprenticeship funding given to states and local partnerships by the Obama administration, the Trump administration’s Department of Labor has refused to give out any of the $95 million appropriated last year by Congress to continue that effort. Even worse, Trump’s proposed budget promises to cut investments in training programs and career and technical education that make apprenticeships possible.

William’s experience is illustrative of both the challenge and solution to the workforce crunch facing the U.S. manufacturing sector. William had a chance to become an apprentice because he had access to the GI bill and union-negotiated tuition assistance provided by his employer. But many U.S. workers do not have access to those resources.

How do we extend the promise of apprenticeship and a new career to millions of U.S. workers without such benefits? And what are we going to do for the thousands of small businesses that don’t have resources of an international company like ArcelorMittal to pay for training?

Employer engagement is going to be critical. They know what they want and need, and that firsthand knowledge of what’s required in their workspaces means companies must become more active participants in the shaping of the American labor pool.

That won’t be easy. In the past few decades relentless corporate concentration has been on quarterly earnings statements, not long-term growth. That has meant companies have become lean, mean high-stock-price machines that will trim the fat wherever they find it. Unfortunately, workforce training funding was long mistaken as a cost rather than a productive investment.

But it will take more than employer commitment. It’s going to take a committed partner in our state and federal governments, with the kinds of public investments and progressive policies that our competitor nations overseas have long adopted.

The Trump administration doesn’t have long to act. Factory workers in America are (broadly speaking) middle-aged and getting older. Their shift toward retirement will mean opportunity for the next generation of workers — but those workers will look different. In addition to those just entering the workforce, there will be those transitioning between careers, and all will need significant training before they step foot on a shop floor.

Technological advancement has meant factories are no longer assembly lines; they require their employees to be able to interface with complex machines and computers, and adjust on the fly.

But the rapid decline in manufacturing jobs since 2000 — in addition to depopulation and that aforementioned demographic bulge — sent our workforce training programs in different directions.

While factory employment has since stabilized, employer-sponsored training programs are still rebooting. And that’s where a better government partner could step in.

Lawmakers at both the federal and state level should think big, and pursue things like sector partnership strategies that identify legitimate skills gaps in a specific industry; ID common workforce skills standards in that industry; and create or training programs and curricula — a labor pipeline — to meet them.

They can encourage up-skilling with simple policy adjustments, like easing the registration of industrial apprenticeships or dedicating matching funds to offset their costs. And they can double-down on the new apprenticeship investments already made by states and the feds, using those dollars to more effectively leverage private-sector investments in apprentices in manufacturing as well as a range of other industries. Public resources can help diversify the apprentice pipeline, looking not only to veterans like William, but to out-of-school young adults, high school students not interested in taking the full-time college path, and low-income workers who want a shot at a better life — maybe as the next Steelworker for the Future.

Workers deserve (and industry needs) a training pipeline to such a career that is adaptable, flexible, and well-resourced. It will take everyone pulling together to get us there. It’s that kind of coordination that will produce more William Hills in our workforce.


Reposted from Medium

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Alliance for American Manufacturing

Stronger Together

Stronger Together