As the Obama administration talks up its “green jobs” initiatives, some leaders in workforce development are concerned that more traditional skill trades within the manufacturing and construction fields are being deemphasized by community colleges looking for federal dollars to support newfangled programs.
Among those worried are advocacy groups like the American Welding Society.
“The American Welding Society gets concerned when we see Congress act, as it did this year, to discontinue funding for proven programs like the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technical Training  programs in favor of brand new ‘green jobs’ education,” said Ross Hancock, the group’s spokesman, noting that the vote to discontinue has only passed the House so far. “That’s because, right now, there is a shortage of skilled welders in this country, with welders retiring twice as fast as new ones enter the workforce. This trend is having a critical effect on our ability to compete in both ‘green’ and traditional industries.”
Hancock believes that the funding of more “green” job programs comes at the expense of supporting the training of students for more traditional skill trades. This trend, he said, is all too familiar to his organization.
“This is just a repeat of what we’ve seen in the past in vocational education, where something will become very popular in the education industry, such as the training of people to become computer operators or for data entry positions,” Hancock said. “There’s a big emphasis on them, and it always came at the expense of tradition skills training. We’re going down that same path again, like when we trained everyone to be computer programmers when what we really needed were more people trained in traditional trade skills for construction and manufacturing. I mean, sometimes you’ll see these computer labs sparkling and then you’ll see welding labs in mothballs.”
Bryan Albrecht, former president of the Association for Career and Technical Education and president of Gateway Technical College, in Wisconsin, does not agree with Hancock’s either/or assessment. Rather, he argues that federal and other dollars directed at “green” job programs can also benefit and encourage training for existing, traditional trades.
“I don’t buy the myth,” said Albrecht of the idea that trades like welding are being shortchanged by two-year institutions in favor of new, “green” jobs. “Community colleges are very in tune with what the industry is requesting of them. ‘Green’ job training is connected to an existing pathway. For example, with solar energy, the core skill set is still that of becoming an electrician. A lot of times, we’re adding the use of new resources to enhance that training.”
Albrecht said Gateway, like most community colleges, has taken strides to update its traditional skills programs with new technology and with a new “green” focus. The college’s welding labs, for instance, are now fully automated. Though he admits these traditional skills training programs are changing, he does not think they are being deemphasized, as he believes some have a legitimate claim to being considered “green” themselves.
James Jacobs, advisory board member of the Community College Research Center and president of Macomb Community College, outside of Detroit, said it is key to understand a wide range of factors that influence how community colleges allocate resources to job training.
“I think there are a couple of trends going on simultaneously,” Jacobs said. “Given the belief that some have that community colleges should be helping people transition into the new economy, it is true that some kinds of community college programs and leaders are deemphasizing traditional skills trades and entry-level occupational areas. This is partially motivated by the fact that there are so few instructors in these areas. Many people can make more money in these fields than teaching them. Also, for many years in traditional unionized areas, you had a kind of competition from the unions who did their own training. So, for a community college to start a program for plumbers meant that, to the plumbers union, it was a threat. For those of us who do have a lot of these programs, we are faced with somewhat of a dilemma.”
Jacobs noted that, in his area, he does not see many jobs in welding, but he does see plenty of jobs in which welding is considered a required skill among many others. Offering programs that synthesize a number of skills together, he said, are of more value to students than narrow training programs. Jacobs believes that those who bemoan that traditional trades are being deemphasized may miss this logic.
“Knowing a little bit about welding gets you into many other construction jobs, even though there are not many jobs for welders,” Jacobs said. “It’s like Latin. People rarely get a degree in it, but it has useful applications everywhere. … People who say that colleges have turned their back on a potential area should know we’re not turning our back on the students. We don’t want them to just have a job but a career. We don’t have a lot of new ‘green’ technology programs. Mostly, it’s, ‘How can we make a certain skill set within this job more conscious of things like sustainability?’ In our case, most are directly related to the auto industry. Nobody who goes through these programs refers to them as ‘green’ jobs.”
Groups like Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit advocacy organization, share Jacobs’ reasoning but caution that further emphasis on the “greening” of traditional skills or on newer “green” jobs must also come with a better guarantee that students of these programs will find employment.
“Investment in ‘green’ jobs is important,” said Maria Flynn, a vice president for the group’s Building Economy Opportunity subdivision. “Still, we’ve got to make sure the job demand is there. We don’t want to get back to the job training programs of the ‘70s and ‘80s that were called ‘train-and-pray’ programs. They’d train students for certain skills and then pray that they’d have jobs at the end. These ‘green’ programs need to be developed with jobs available at the end. It would be a disservice to students to do otherwise.”
Even though many are dubious of the claim that traditional skill trades are being deemphasized, the concern that they may be has found the ear of someone within the Obama administration.
Jane Oates, the assistant secretary of labor for education and training, said she was given a “wakeup call” on the subject when she heard an anecdote from Gov. Haley Barbour, of Mississippi.
Oates recalled that Barbour told her of his discontent that so many welding jobs in his state, particularly near the Gulf of Mexico, were being taken by foreign guest workers, when he thought his state’s community colleges could easily train local residents for these jobs. She said she plans to bring Barbour’s perspective to Washington, when working with the Education Department and other groups to fund training programs.
“I’m pushing this because there has been so much confusion in the past three decades with so many people doing intermingled services, from Postsecondary Perkins  to vocational high schools to adult evening programs to community colleges” Oates said. “They’re all managed by different people at the state level. The unfortunate outcome is that some occupations have been dropped. Some community colleges thought it was duplicative of what the career and technical education people should have been doing. Programs like welding were dropped because some thought it was being taken care of by Perkins, but Perkins has changed.”
Oates does not believe that the funding mechanisms in place are zero sum between “green” job training and training for more traditional skill trades. Still, she does express some caution for the method in which dollars are invested and for what purpose.
“There are some training opportunities that, because of labor markets, should be less emphasized,” Oates said. “Still, it would be wrong not to look at other areas where training may have gone by the wayside. We always need to be diligent to ‘green’ up traditional trades … We have to be mindful that while funding streams dictate, ‘let’s go after high growth, high wage jobs,’ people want to get any job, even if it doesn’t give them a terrific wage right now. They want a job that’ll help lead to something.”
The first step in putting a certain focus back on traditional trades, Oates argues, is presenting these jobs in a different light.
“What parent ever says to a kid, ‘I want you to go out and be a plumber or welder?’ ” Oates asked. “These jobs are not always given respect, and every job needs to be given the respect and dignity it deserves.”