How one BSA council is addressing the skilled-trades shortage

Mark Ray

If St. Louis were building its famed Gateway Arch today, it might have trouble finding enough skilled tradespeople to finish the job.

According to the State of the St. Louis Workforce 2017 report, nearly 60% of companies that hire workers in the skilled trades say they can’t find enough people with the skills they need. That’s not surprising, given that 53% of jobs in the 16-county region are middle-skill positions — those requiring postsecondary training but not a four-year degree — but only 46% of area adults are middle-skill workers.

How can a BSA council address the skills gap? One way is by expanding Exploring, the worksite-based career-education program offered by the BSA’s Learning for Life affiliate. Skilled trades is one of the career fields Exploring focuses on, along with law enforcement, health care and many others.

“As a council, we’ve really made workforce preparedness a high priority,” Greater St. Louis Area Council Exploring Executive Ryan Kirchner says. “In fact, it’s our No. 2 priority after outreach to underserved communities.”

A Camp for Careers

Last summer, Kirchner tried a new approach: a day camp designed to introduce area teens to job opportunities in several construction-related trades. He didn’t run the camp himself, however. Instead, he enlisted organizations that share similar goals and/or have sponsored Explorer posts. Specifically, he worked with South Technical High School (aka South Tech), the St. Louis Carpenters’ Joint Apprenticeship Program, Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 and Laborers’ Union Local 110.

Each session of the four-day camp began at South Tech, a public school that offers free career training to high school juniors and seniors. (Students complete academic requirements at their home schools, and then they travel to South Tech for career and technical electives in 26 different areas of emphasis.)

Day 1 of the camp was all about carpentry. Campers learned about safety and personal protection equipment, then started swinging hammers, which was a new skill for some of them. They also practiced mounting electrical boxes on studs. After that, they traveled by bus to a couple of nearby jobsites: a retirement community and a residential neighborhood with houses at various stages of construction.

The field trip reinforced the lessons they’d learned — they saw plenty of hardhats and harness systems — but it also showed them that carpentry means a lot more than just swinging hammers.

“Carpenters do so much more than that, from concrete foundations to floor-laying to roofs to welding,” Kirchner says. “It was really neat that the students got to see all the different aspects of what a carpenter can do.”

The campers learned similar lessons on Day 2, which they spent at the Laborers’ Union’s training facility.

“You really realize how they have their hands in a little bit of everything, from metalwork to crane operating,” Kirchner says.

A Little Bit of Everything

In fact, jobs done by laborers include everything from pouring concrete roads to driving trucks over those roads and from laying bricks to demolishing old buildings. Campers didn’t get their hands on any TNT, but they did learn the hand signals a signal person uses to communicate with a crane operator.

“We used the signals to tell the person where to move the crane and when to go down and back up and everything,” 14-year-old camper Micah Louvierre says.

Day 3 featured a field trip to the sheet metal workers’ training facility. There, campers learned that tradespeople rely on their brains as well as their brawn. Before they bend metal, for example, sheet metal workers use geometry to figure out where the bends should go. The teens also got to see — although not play with — some cool toys, including a plasma cutter, which uses a jet of superheated ionized gas to cut through steel like a knife through butter.

“They give it the dimensions and everything and turn it on, and it just slices through the metal,” says camper Alex Kopff, 16.

The camp’s final day found the campers back at South Tech, where they learned about some of the other trades the school teaches, including carpet-laying. To end the week, they made handcrafted carpet inlays using different colored carpet squares.

Some campers chose sports or automotive logos, but camper Ryan Cole, 17, put his last name in his carpet square.

“You can kind of see the letters on it,” he says. “I’d used one of those knives before in art to carve stuff out.”


INSIDE SOUTH TECH

South Tech (along with its sister school, North Tech) is playing an important role in helping St. Louis address its skills gap. Students can choose from 26 tuition-free programs ranging from auto collision repair to welding. And, depending on the program, they can leave with basic certifications, apprenticeship or college credits — even job offers.

They also leave with a new perspective on the skilled trades, something that’s sorely missing across America. One recent survey found that just 11% of young people think trade school can lead to a high-paying job. In reality, tradespeople often out-earn their college-educated neighbors. According to Generation T (a campaign launched by Lowe’s and 60 partners in 2019), the median starting salary for a master electrician is $59,100, compared with $49,700 for someone with a four-year humanities degree.

What’s more, tradespeople can have an easier time finding a job. America is turning out twice as many college graduates as it needs each year, while nearly half of employers face hiring challenges because of the skills gap.