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Apprenticeships and two-year degrees are calling -- is anyone listening?

For decades, the beating drum of career guidance has led many young people down one path: Four-year degree. Office job. Four-year degree. Office job.

That approach has failed to match young workers with available positions, leading to many overqualified baristas and far fewer plumbers.

"If things continue we'd be in serious danger of being able to maintain our infrastructure," said Jeff Brown, training director for Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin Plumbers and Steamfitters JATC. "You can't go more than a couple feet anywhere where there are people living and not see something that people in the skilled trades did — people have been taking that for granted."

For years the trades have been ringing the alarm bells, asking schools and parents and guidance counselors to consider sending more high school grads into two-year programs and apprenticeships. Because the workforce of the future is, for now, sorely lacking the kind of skills needed to keep the world running.

If the momentum is starting to turn, it's happening slowly. Brown says that plumbing apprentice recruits rarely come right out of high school anymore, though the trades are still determined to reach them there.

"It's more about people that have the direct contact with them early on — educating them, and then passing that down to the actual person who might be a good fit for us," he said.

In Duluth, that would start with Bradley Vieths, the vocational program coordinator with the public school district. He said enrollment and investment in technical career classes are up after years of decline, and industry partners have been better at opening their doors.

"Kids want to say they want to be engineers but don't know what that means every day," Vieths said, pointing to the growing demand for skilled workers in aerospace. "We need to expose kids to the micro-economy in the region."

Josh Goutermont didn't have that exposure early on and went the typical route after high school, enrolling at the University of Minnesota Duluth. But he quickly rerouted to Lake Superior College, where it struck him: "There are people asking to invest in you."

Goutermont is now the manager of employee and labor relations for Allete and Minnesota Power, and his road there was paved by apprenticeships.

"You really can just jump right in, start getting a great education, start getting paid — you're really launching into your career," he said. "There are a lot of people who have great careers after taking a chance and starting an apprenticeship."

Though not as common as in decades past, apprenticeships are still widely available through unions and employers and take anywhere from a high school diploma to a two-year degree to qualify. Those interested can visit www.apprenticeshipmn.com to learn more.

And though technology may change the nature of the jobs, automation is not expected to replace these high-paying, high-skilled roles anytime soon.

"We had linemen 110 years ago, we have linemen today," Goutermont said. "The skills are very portable."

As many take the long way around before joining an apprenticeship — maybe taking a job with a four-year degree and wanting something more — Goutermont appealed to high school students to consider alternatives before starting their careers: "I feel like anybody on the fence about getting a four-year degree, go get a two-year. You can always go on."

At a recent manufacturing conference in Duluth, Enterprise Minnesota CEO Bob Kill put it more bluntly.

"We need to stop considering technical degrees as consolation prizes."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

(218) 723-5329
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