Skilled labor employers have been feeling the shortage of qualified workers in the area for years now, according to Griff Thomas, an operations manager at Miller Mechanical Services in Glens Falls.
One place Thomas has found qualified candidates recently is graduates from the BOCES welding program. Miller Mechanical currently has five graduates of the program, some of whom were hired right out of high school.
“I can’t find welders who are qualified to do the work,” Thomas said. “Some of these young kids coming out of the BOCES program are better than guys saying they have 20 years of experience.”
Even with BOCES acting as a pipeline to well-paying skills jobs in the area, the need for more workers is being felt across the board.
“I believe there’s demand everywhere for welders, machinists, plumbers, electricians, really all of fields have jobs that aren’t filled,” Thomas said.
Nancy DeStefano, the assistant superintendent of instructional programs at the Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES, is one of the people in charge of getting high school students into the “pipeline” to the skilled-labor job market.
DeStefano said part of the reason there is a shortage of skilled labor now is the emphasis schools have put on students to attend a traditional four-year college, but she thinks that mindset is starting to change.
“In the past, there’s been a push for students to get four-year degrees,” DeStefano said, “And I think that has started to shift a little bit because of the need for skilled laborers and the wages that people can make.”
Despite the opportunity for students to avoid burdensome student loans and a crowded job market in careers outside of medical or engineering fields, some classes at the BOCES facility aren’t full.
Robert Cieply, a senior at Hudson Falls High School, said part of the reason more students don’t sign up for technical education classes is the stigma around blue-collar work that persists in media and culture. He said he thinks most people still think of the plumber with his pants sagging when they think of skilled laborers.
Chelsey Lewis, a senior from Cambridge High School in the same HVAC course as Cieply, said she thought there was a prioritization of academics over technical education in her school.
“We don’t get as much credit as we should even though we’re the ones doing the hard work,” Lewis said.
Regardless of the reason, DeStefano said they are always working on increasing enrollment and getting students into programs that work for them. She said every year they send out postcards, host open houses, give tours, run television commercials and more to try and raise awareness about the programs they offer.
“We have room for more students because we could always look at adding more sections and instructors,” DeStefano said. “We’d love to be in that predicament.”
Noah Johnson, a senior at South Glens Falls, is wrapping up the BOCES welding program this spring and will be interning at Miller Mechanical for the remainder of the semester. He said he was offered a prolonged internship, normally they run for three or four weeks, because of his drive and high marks on a practice test.
Thomas said Johnson was a quick learner and a hard worker, making him a valuable asset he’d like to see stick around after graduation.
“If he wants to stay with us, we’d absolutely take him,” Thomas said. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Several students from the BOCES programs said their decision to enroll wasn’t as much about future employment, though, as it was about finding a subject and a learning style that interested them more than the traditional classroom.
“I knew that college was not for me,” Cieply said. “I guess a lot of people are left behind by the normal school system. Sitting in a class for eight hours a day isn’t going to do it for most people.”
Johnson said he was not a fan of the traditional classroom either, and the welding program gave him the chance to do something he enjoyed while also giving him a stable foundation for employment when he gets out of school.
“I’d rather be doing this than sitting at a desk,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot more hands-on.”
The courses aren’t just available to high school students either.
DeStefano said there are between 10 and 25 adult students each school year who attend to get specialized training in a skill they believe will lead to employment.
Josh McWherter, who served in the Army for 10 years and is now using GI Bill funds to pay the costs of the program, said he chose the machine-tooling course because he knew it was in high demand in the area. He is currently doing an internship with Bard medical devices and hopes to continue working there after graduation.
The teacher of McWherter’s class, David Coonradt, now in his 20th year of teaching, said he hadn’t been without a job since 1971 and his students were learning skills that would give them a stable foundation for their future. He said many sectors of American industry were on the rise and would probably keep expanding.
“It’s coming back in because of our capability and our ingenuity,” Coonradt said.