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An Image Problem

By Melissa Anders

Stephanie Comai explains skilled trades misperceptions

Changing the perception of the skilled trades goes deeper than just altering education. The perceptions – or rather misperceptions – are present in Hollywood and in pop culture. Students hear it from their parents, their teachers and their guidance counselors. Shattering these misperceptions and exploring the numerous career opportunities available to youth today starts with adjusting the cultural component that feeds these sources the same image of yesterday’s skilled trades worker.  The Detroiter chatted with Stephanie Comai, director of the Michigan Talent Investment Agency, about the state’s efforts to combat these negative perceptions of the skilled trades, and a video series with TV host Mike Rowe that launched at the 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference.

What is the image problem of the skilled trades?

The first is that for the last 20, maybe 30 years, we’ve really been focusing people’s attention on getting a four-year degree, and meanwhile, not as much emphasis on other credentials people can obtain that provide a great living for people and a way for them to support their families. There’s that image problem. There’s also the image that people have of what it looks like at real manufacturing facilities today versus what it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Part of the effort with the Mike Rowe videos that we’ve produced is to really change that image because it gives a behind-the-scenes look of what those places of employment look like.

How do misperceptions differ from reality?

The work environment in manufacturing is very different from what a lot of people may remember from their youth 30 or 40 years ago. They’re very clean. They’re very high tech. Most of the jobs now in manufacturing require a very high level of technical skill that does require some kind of certificate or degree beyond a high school diploma. People thinking these are jobs for uneducated or low-skilled workers is not the case any longer.

Why haven’t the skilled trades been on people’s minds when considering careers?

People just didn’t understand the options that were available to them. These jobs pay a median of $21 an hour, but that can go all the way up to $34 an hour, so that information alone can really help people understand what the financial gain for them can be if they enjoy technical work, if they enjoy working with their hands and if they’re not interested in a traditional office environment.

How does the skilled trades’ image problem impact Michigan?

It really keeps our current economic growth that we’re experiencing right now; I think it puts that at risk. One of the biggest issues we hear from employers everywhere across the state is the lack of the right skills in the pool of applicants that they’re looking at, so companies can’t take on more business. They can’t expand when we don’t have the right skill set out there. It really can hamper our economic growth in the future.

What is the state doing to address that?

We have a number of other initiatives to really build that pipeline. One of them, for instance, is an early and middle college initiative. … After spending five years in high school, a student is exiting with a high school diploma, an opportunity to earn an associate degree or transferable college credits, or participate in a registered apprenticeship. We have $10 million budgeted for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 for regions around the state to develop plans on how they can build their early or middle college opportunities in their region or expand the ones that already exist.

There’s also the video campaign that launched at the 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference. What types of industries are featured?

Stephanie Comai QuoteWhen we say skilled trades, it’s maybe a misnomer in that there certainly is welding and there are traditional skilled trades jobs. We also feature health care; it’s a huge growing industry in the state, so there’s a video on that. There’s also a video on information technology opportunities. There’s a wide range of skill sets that are needed – some that require a certificate or associate degree all the way up to an advanced degree.

How is the state tackling the issue of parents’ antiquated perceptions of the skilled trades of today?

We’re actually planning on doing some focus groups with parents this next school year starting in October to really understand what parents – when they’re helping their children decide on careers and their future – what kinds of misperceptions they have about these areas that we can then craft a campaign around. We’re actually working in tandem with the Michigan Manufacturers Association on developing a future campaign around that area.

What else are you doing to lengthen the talent pipeline?

The other one that I think is really important for people who are currently in the workforce and for people who are looking for a job is the Skilled Trades Training Fund. It was a $10 million fund. It’s been increased to $20 million thanks to the Governor and the Legislature. These are competitive awards to employers who need assistance training either their current workforce or if they’re having trouble filling a job in their place of business. This can provide assistance to train someone identified who needs some upskilling and get them into that permanent position. The program has been really very successful. We have data about retention rates. Six months after the completion of the training, people are making about $19 an hour. Six months later, 92 percent are still employed at the place of business where they were trained and (there’s a) 98 percent completion rate for the training.