What do you think the odds are that a Detroit Free Press editorial writer attended the recent SMACNA-Sheet Metal Workers union conference in Las Vegas? I doubt it too, but a recent commentary on trade schools and community colleges in the paper almost made me wonder.



What do you think the odds are that a Detroit Free Press editorial writer attended the recent SMACNA-Sheet Metal Workers union conference in Las Vegas?

I doubt it too, but a recent commentary on trade schools and community colleges in the paper almost made me wonder.

The column by Free Press staffer Jeff Gerritt was similar to comments made by two speakers at March 29-April 1 Partners in Progress conference at Caesars Palace. College professors Andrea D. Mitnick and William F. Maloney spoke to Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors' National Association members about the shortage of industry workers.

Part of the problem, they said, was too many teachers, school counselors and state legislators tell students that a four-year college or university is their only option for a well-paying career. That leads to universities full of students who don't want to be there - and probably shouldn't.

"(College) is not the answer for so many children I've seen," Mitnick said. "Half of them probably shouldn't be there."

So where should they go? As Mitnick, Maloney, Gerritt and many construction experts have said, community college or a trade school would be a good place to start.

Skills needed

According to several studies, the biggest job growth in the next five years will be for occupations that don't require a four-year degree. What they do require, however, is education beyond high school.

Sheet metal, like many construction careers, certainly fits both situations. SNIPS has written several times about the current and projected job shortage in the industry. And most HVAC work today requires substantial training, whether on-the-job or through a community college, trade school or apprenticeship program.

The rewards for a job in sheet metal can be numerous, whether one does residential HVAC work or becomes an expert at architectural projects such as metal roofs and copper cupolas. They include the potential for good pay along with the variety of ever-changing projects

As the Detroit Free Press' Gerritt noted, many vocational careers have starting salaries of more than $20 an hour. And I would point out that many jobs that require a college education don't match that figure.

However, that's a message which seems largely lost on many state officials. They talk endlessly about the need for students to get a college education, but the importance of vocational training often gets short shrift. Sometimes, when pressed, a legislator will say that such programs are an important part of the educational landscape, but it's a message few in the public hear clearly.

The result, as experts such as Mitnick point out, is many students drop out of college with little idea what to do with their lives. Thirty years ago, a college - or even high school - dropout could often find a decent-paying job in a factory despite his or her lack of marketable skills.

That hasn't been the case in most areas for a long time. In states such as mine, Michigan, the transition from an industrial economy that allowed even the uneducated to find high-paying work in auto factories to one that requires higher education has been especially difficult.

Too many people who only took a semester or two of college toil at fast-food restaurants and convenience stores for low wages, often with no benefits. Most probably know little about the construction industry and the difference it could make in their lives.