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Local schools seek solutions to America’s ‘trades deficit’

Maddie Meyer (left) and Stephanie Markowski measure a length of tubing using a precision height gauge.

Maddie Meyer (left) and Stephanie Markowski measure a length of tubing using a precision height gauge.

America is suffering a trades deficit.

While the problem of fewer skilled workers entering the labor pool is not new, it is reaching a critical point. Data collected by staffing expert ManpowerGroup estimates that approximately 60 percent of all skilled laborers – defined as welders, electricians and machinists – are age 45 and older. In as little as five to 10 years, retirement and natural attrition could leave the country wanting unless local schools and others step in.

Rockwood and Parkway are doing just that.

Both local districts have expanded their technology and engineering course offerings at the high school level through a partnership with South County Tech High. Although traditional shop classes are still available in the high schools, they offer a more exploratory approach to the skill sets needed in career trades. Conversely, South County Tech’s classes are more comprehensive and in-depth, with primary enrollment in 11th and 12th grades.

Jennifer Stanfill, coordinator for career and technical education for Parkway, said: “We’re working to foster a culture of choice when it comes to student learning experiences. The technical schools are a rigorous, relevant choice that provides our students with the opportunity to become capable, curious and confident learners.”

Stanfill, who also oversees Parkway’s new entrepreneurial program Spark!, recently had the opportunity to marry the two distinct programs. Two Spark! students Annalise Ruzicka and Marisa Hacker visited South County Tech and met with students Maddie Meyer, of Parkway North, and Stephanie Markowski, of Mehlville High, to discuss prototype designs for their award-winning  creation – the popcorn straw – and to discuss possible variations to their original design.

To help take their creation from the drawing board into manufacturing, the Parkway entrepreneurs need help from South County Tech tradesmen Meyer and Markowski, who will begin manufacturing several prototypes under the guidance of South County Tech Precision Machining Instructor Bob Arcipowski.

For the students at both institutions, the collaboration offers a glimpse into the importance of skilled laborers.

Troy Pohlman, founder and CEO of Component Bar Products, Inc., an O’Fallon-based manufacturer of precision machined products, knows that importance all too well. Several years ago, he realized that there were too few opportunities for young people, specifically 18 to 28 year olds, to get training in the trades – and he decided to take action. After conducting a pilot program, the Midwest Machine Tool Training Center’s 20-week program was born.

MMTTC is due to hold its first class in January 2015 in an 8,000-square-foot center in O’Fallon. The 20-week course will provide trainees with entry-level skills in metal working studies. Industry business partners, like True Manufacturing Company, Inc., will visit MMTTC monthly.

Pohlman, Parkway and Rockwood also believes in partnerships.

Operating under a model similar to Parkway’s, Rockwood offers dual enrollment between its traditional high schools and South County Tech. Rockwood’s Career and Technical Education Facilitator Paige Carlson provided a scenario of understanding.

“If a student is interested in a career in construction, Rockwood offers many courses in the industrial and engineering technology department such as metal processes or wood processes that would help prepare the student for work in this field. However, if a student would like to take a course for a highly specialized field such as a floor layers apprenticeship, Rockwood students have the opportunity to dual enroll in South County Tech and Rockwood,” she said.

Jacob Lohse, South County Tech principal, explained that enrollment at the school provides students with both the skills and connections necessary to succeed. He believes that because teachers bring their personal experiences into the classroom, students gain a glimpse or deeper insight into the realities of what their potential career choice might look like.

To help erase the trades deficit, Pohlman and other employers are hoping that the students like what they see.

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