For Eva Arriaga, the “skilled worker disconnect” was uncomfortably close to home. Though the Houston area economy is booming, the young single mother lacked the skills she needed to take advantage of the shortfall of as many as 8 million welders, plumbers, electricians and other skilled workers that the American workforce would need by 2027.
The qualification she did have — a medical assistant certificate paid for with $15,000 in burdensome student loans — wasn’t enough to get her the kind of job she needed to keep herself and her kids off food stamps and Medicaid.
The high-paying jobs were out there; she wanted to work. An innovative program through S&B Engineers and Constructors Ltd. in Houston helped bridge that divide. For Arriaga and her children, the difference has been life-changing. Accepted into a “earn while you learn” program that teaches plumbing skills to women, Arriaga spent 16 weeks learning a trade: pipefitting.
During those initial weeks, she was paid $17 per hour, significantly more than the $11.75 she had earned as a medical assistant with four years of experience. Upon completing the program, she began a job with S&B helping to build a new petroleum facility, at $21 per hour.
Arriaga’s story is a far-too-rare success story. Why aren’t we working harder to enable willing workers to learn the skills they need for the high-paying skilled labor jobs that are going unfilled? The payoff — both for the economy and for Texas families — would be enormous.
To be sure, there are programs. There are community colleges and high school Career Technology Education centers and workforce programs such as the Department of Labor’s Jobs Corps. Yet many of these programs have limited success. The Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General released a paper recently assessing the Job Corps’ performance in providing job training. The results were discouraging.
“Job Corps contractors could not demonstrate they had assisted participants in finding jobs for 94 percent of the placements in our sample,” the report found. “Participants either found jobs through their own efforts or without clearly documented contractor assistance.”
And about half of Jobs Corps participants see no long-term improvement in their lives as a result of their training.
We can do better, by modeling our efforts on what works.
It begins with an earn-while-you-learn model. Workers are often hesitant to leave a low-paying, low-skilled job for a new opportunity because they need the paycheck. Sufficient training wages allow people to make the life-changing leap.
And it should be industry-driven. Companies can do a great service for the community, but also reap the benefit of a new labor pool that is both well-trained and grateful for the opportunity.
And being industry-led, new programs will ensure that participants are steered toward trades that need workers. The private sector should be a true partner in this effort, not a bystander.
Next, a workable model of skills training is focused. Many workers don’t need a community college education, with its time and coursework requirements. They need the skills that will secure them a wage on which they can raise their kids.
Finally, new programs must be transparent and accountable. Private sector firms should be rewarded and recompensed only for success — upon showing that a student has successfully completed a course of study and found a paying job — rather than just for participation.
There’s a dignity that comes with an honest day’s work for a good paycheck. Arriaga’s four boys, she admits, weren’t sure about their mother becoming a pipefitter. But as their lives have changed for the better, they’re behind her — and proud of their mom.
For Arriaga, there have been other perks. The S&B program got the attention of the White House last year, and Arriaga and some of her classmates attended the signing of President Trump’s executive order creating a National Council for the American Worker.