As head of a public power utility, Steve Klein has faced some sticky issues over the years, mostly centered on keeping electricity prices low in an era of ever-spiraling rates from the Bonneville Power Administration.
Today, he faces an equally stubborn problem getting young people to accept a job that starts at $55,000 a year.
That’s right: $55,000, which is 28 percent higher than the average wage in Snohomish County last year. And in less time than it takes to complete college, those workers linemen trainees can change that paycheck to journeyman’s wages of $72,000 a year.
So what’s the problem?
Despite the hefty pay, Klein, the general manager of Snohomish County PUD, is having difficulty finding linemen. The problem is so big that his agency has been operating without six to eight needed linemen for several years. If he doesn’t fill the openings, he’ll have trouble maintaining the area’s electrical system, let alone expanding it.
The scarcity isn’t limited to linemen, whose high-wire work isn’t a job everyone can stomach. Around the Northwest, and especially in the fast-growing Seattle region, labor leaders are scrambling to find carpenters, electricians, ironworkers and sheet-metal specialists as their membership continues to age.
The problem is so acute that many are asking themselves this question: Are today’s young people too lazy to do physical labor?
Experts say the issue is more complex. Some suggest that the real question is whether we’re giving our kids bad advice by insisting that everyone go to college. One thing is clear. The children of today’s baby boomers are focused more on college and a desk job.
“It’s a sea change,” said Donna Thompson, a labor economist for the state Employment Security Department. “In our time, the important thing was just to get a job. Today, people want a job they can feel good about.”
Change in the Northwest
John Mohr, who runs the Port of Everett, remembers growing up in Oregon when the Northwest’s middle class was laden with people who worked in the forests and the lumber mills.
“I remember friends of mine trying to get into a union apprenticeship program and they couldn’t,” he said, noting the few openings typically went to someone with a friend or family member already in the union.
Today, you no longer have to know an insider to earn a union card.
“There’s so much work out there, we can’t get enough guys,” said ironworker John Lake. The prevailing wage in Snohomish County for journeyman ironworkers is $47.92 an hour nearly $100,000 a year although the work is seasonal.
Mohr thinks the reason unions are struggling is a shift in the Northwest’s strong cultural tradition of organized labor. “A lot of people believe if you’re not working for Microsoft, you’re not part of the American success story,” he said.
‘The Microsofting of Washington’
Thompson’s son, a software engineer, is part of that success story.
“My son works at Microsoft, and they have a gym there and free juice and pop in the break rooms,” she said. “They have games set up. The guys all dress down.”
Microsoft’s allure, she noted, is that it has long focused on results, not dress codes. “They wanted happy employees who had a lot of loyalty to the company,” she said of the relaxed culture. “Of course, there are also the stock options.”
And the casual look is not just at Microsoft. Increasingly, workers are wearing their jeans and flannel shirts to the office, not the forests, as server farms and other computer-related businesses are popping up around the state like morel mushrooms in spring.
“We call it the Microsofting of Washington,” said Ryan Bradt of Everett, who teaches electrical industry apprentices in northwest Washington. “We all expect to grow up and have a computer job.”
Carlos Tostado, 49, the PUD’s training coordinator, calls the shortage of skilled workers a generational issue. “We wanted our kids to do better,” he said. “We thought college was the answer and we pushed for that. We did too good of a job of that. Skilled labor was thought of as too much work.”
Bradt, 31, is an example of the college push.
He is the fourth generation of his family to join the electricians’ union, but neither his father nor his grandfather wanted him to follow in their footsteps.
“I think there’s more opportunity at the top of the rainbow for kids outside an apprenticeship,” said Roger Bradt of Marysville, Ryan’s father. “With a college education, there’s no limit to your earnings potential. With an apprenticeship, you can only make so much money.”
Roger Bradt said he envisioned his son as “a teacher, a principal and maybe a superintendent.” Ryan’s grandfather, he said, “wanted all these grandkids that all had college educations.”
So Ryan Bradt went to college until he investigated the pay and the duties for his major, journalism. “I went home and I said, ‘Hey, Dad. I want to become an electrician,’ ” Ryan Bradt said.
Now he’s an electrician and a teacher.
Ryan Bradt made his comments during an interview at a recent “job carnival” to encourage high school students to join the trades. “Fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “But attitudes have changed. Everything is college-driven.”
Local 191 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is based in Everett and has roughly 2,500 members. During the next three years, it will need 1,800 more just to cover major projects “already on the books,” said Travis Patterson, its business and membership development officer.
“I see five to 10 years of steady work ahead of us,” he said.
Desks aren’t for everyone
Kai Elliott of Seattle has degrees in biochemistry and microbiology and has abandoned a research job he described as “looking at a microscope for eight hours a day.”
Elliott said his family demanded that he attend college. “I was expected to go to medical school or law school and sit behind a desk and be very miserable.”
Instead, Elliott said he left research to join Seattle Central Community College’s construction program, where the average age of the students is 35.
So did Mariah Drogitis, who joined the program after going to college and working eight years in health care. “I changed careers because I wanted to get outside and do something something substantial and environmental, like green building,” she said.
Both Elliott and Drogitis agree the industry has a huge variety of jobs that involve more than driving nails. “It takes intense math skills,” Elliott said. “It’s a misconception that we’re just a bunch of jocks or jar heads.”
Not enough exposure
Pushing kids into college is only part of the problem, said Klein, the utility manager. Not showing them options is another.
“Somewhere in the educational system and the process, young people are falling into a hole here and are not seeing a path,” Klein said. “In my era in the ’60s, there were still a lot of active vocational programs in the schools that people were urged to go into. I didn’t see that when I went to school meetings for my own children. It seems like college was a path, but if you were not going to college, there wasn’t a clear direction.”
Eric Peterson, a member of the training committee for sheet-metal workers in Western Washington, agreed with Klein.
“They’ve taken the vocational training out of the high school and the kids aren’t exposed to the trades,” he said. “Unlike college, you get paid to learn and you can go as far as you want. The kids aren’t hearing about it. They deserve to know so that they have a choice.”
Focus is on academics
Sue Ambler, the director of the Snohomish County Workforce Development Council, spent a long time in the schools working with truants. She said most kids are assessed in the eighth or ninth grade, then steered to either technical or academic training.
“In current technical education, the thought is that only high-risk kids should go into that program, but that’s not the case,” she said, adding that students on the academic track who don’t go to college will be unprepared for work.
Added the agency’s Heather Villars: “People are going into debt to go to college and many aren’t getting a job, and we aren’t talking about that. Unless you have an internship or you know someone, you’re working at Borders.”
At his day job, state Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, runs the Snohomish County Labor Council. Before that, he was a teacher. In the Legislature, he is vice chairman of the House Higher Education Committee.
Asked why so few students seem to be interested in the trades, he prefaces his remarks by saying his thoughts are anecdotal, based on stories, not studies.
“I’ve heard they’ve shut down a lot of the technical programs because of the need to focus on getting the best WASL scores,” he said of the high schools.
WASL, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, is a skills tests that, for the first time in 2008, seniors will have to pass to graduate. By this summer, 87 percent of those students had passed the reading and writing test, but only 61 percent had cleared the math segment, such a bad showing that the Legislature has postponed the math deadline until 2013.
School advisers, Sells said, don’t have time to let students know what types of careers are available. “The pressure they’re facing is WASL, WASL, WASL. Pass the WASL,” Sells said. “Anything that doesn’t do that, screw it. That’s the message that I hear.”
Need to start early
Sells remembers his teaching days when he would bring in a parent with a cabinet shop and have his fifth-graders work with wood. “Standards are important,” he said. “But I think introductory classes are, too. And it needs to go deeper than high school.”
He noted a recent television program where a woman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was developing robots that interact with humans. “She said she got interested in this by watching ‘Star Wars’ as a child,” Sells said. “I think it’s these early connections that inspire us.”
Ironworker Lake suggests that teachers aren’t the only ones not introducing young people to physical work. “They don’t have to do any chores,” he said of today’s young people. “They sit around home playing computer games because their parents are working and don’t want to be bothered.”
Ambler acknowledged that many high schools have abandoned their shop classes, but she also noted that the Sno-Isle Skills Center in Everett serves many students interested in job training and that several districts have developed new career programs in the high schools. Still, she’d like to see more integration between technical and academic training.
“I believe every child should be afforded a high academic education,” she said. “But they also should be taught a work ethic in career or technical education. They shouldn’t have to make a choice.”
Solving the problem
The PUD isn’t waiting for someone else to find people to work as linemen. It can’t.
Last year in Washington state, 20 percent of the 15,000 or so workers in the utility industry were between the ages of 50 and 65, according to Employment Security.
In a recent study, the agency noted that the average age of the Boeing Co.’s workers is 50. Patterson said the average age of his electrical workers is about 48. The trades are quickly running out of time as their baby boomers get ready to retire.
Even many of the PUD’s linemen in training are older workers.
Among the group is Alan Burke, 40, of Sedro-Woolley, a former tree trimmer who “wanted to learn something new.”
“There’s a lot of pride and honor that goes with this trade and a lot of sacrifice, too,” he said recently while helping to replace a rotted power pole, a job that required him to climb up the new pole and hang in the air while reattaching a transformer and transmission wires. “It’s a lot of hard work, and you can’t be afraid of heights. But it’s a lot of fun to work here.”
Several union leaders said their successful apprentices are often older workers.
“It’s a different generation coming up right now,” said Patterson. “It’s ‘Show me the money.’ Their work ethic isn’t up to snuff. It’s kind of scary, to be honest.”
The issue of physical work aside, some students are put off by the time and the math skills involved in apprenticeships, Ambler said. “An apprenticeship is not as easy as it sounds,” she added.
The development council is getting more directly involved with recruiting young people, creating events such as the job carnival and career fairs and conventions where students can try job skills and get information directly from a variety of employers.
The agency’s carnival earlier this year which included booths from a dozen or so trades with hands-on activities was a hit for Kameron Overmon, then 16, of Mariner High School. “That was fun,” he said after putting siding on a small building. “That was really fun. That was something I’d want to do.”
In addition to trying to interest young people in the trades, officials are trying to create enough work for them while they’re in training. Mohr noted that the Everett port has agreed to hire apprentices for its $400 million waterfront redevelopment with partner Maritime Trust. The state has a similar program.
“That’s why the Legislature made sure everything involving state construction, the highways and the schools had an apprenticeship component,” Sells said.
Mike Benbow: 425-339-3459; email@example.com.