In 2009, Eric Slone had just graduated from Indianapolis-based Butler University with a bachelor’s degree in secondary education.

 But when it came time to finding a social studies teaching position, he said his job search in and around the state of Indiana was anything but encouraging.

“I can understand that there are only so many jobs out there, but the most frustrating part is that a lot of the schools ask you not to call in and check on applications, which, historically, it’s been something you do,” said Slone, who’s now a 30-year-old Indianapolis resident and father of one. “You follow up on your applications and let them know that you’re interested.”

After more than a year of applying to jobs, watching those applications seemingly vanish and growing tired of the orchestra of crickets and lack of feedback from potential employers, Slone turned to his now father-in-law, who at the time was an apprenticeship coordinator at Sheet Metal Workers Local 20 in Indianapolis. He encouraged Slone to apply for the apprenticeship and training program run by the union.

“I wanted to learn how to weld, and it seemed like a good field for me to learn,” Slone said. “I figured if I could find a job that would keep me busy and I’d learn that skill, it’d be both fun and (it would) pay the bills.” 

 While he and his wife are still tackling student loan debt from attending college — he said they now owe under $20,000 — some of that financial weight has been lifted thanks to the “earn while you learn” model of the skilled trades, where you’re paid to gain experience and acquire new skills.

Slone finishes his apprenticeship this month and will officially graduate in May with zero added debt. He’ll continue to work as a shop supervisor-in-training at Tarpenning-LaFollette Co. in Indianapolis. Although his career path took a few twists, turns and bends, he said he doesn’t regret going to college, but wished he had known about the other choices available to him before hopping on the four-year college conveyor belt.

“It seems like overwhelmingly there was a pedestal for those who could go on to college, and it was sort of expected of most (high school) students,” he said. “I felt that push. I was a good student … and the next step for me was college.” 

An alternate path

With current student loan debt reaching the $1.3 trillion mark — and students carrying an average of $37,172 in student debt with them as they enter the workforce, according to analysis by higher-education expert Mark Kantrowitz — apprenticeships offer a new route to high school graduates who are looking for hands-on experiences outside of the 9-to-5 desk job. And if the predictions are accurate, the industry will need these young workers sooner rather than later.

Over the next decade, roughly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely need to be filled, according to a 2015 report on the skills gap in manufacturing by accounting and research firm Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. And the widening skills gap — caused in part by baby boomer retirements and economic expansion — is expected to result in 2 million of those jobs going unfilled, the report says.

Despite layoffs resulting from the 2007-09 Great Recession, the qualified-worker shortage remains. According to a 2009 survey of the manufacturing industry by Deloitte, computer technology company Oracle and the institute, one-third of companies indicated they still had unfilled positions due to a lack of qualified applicants.

Employment of HVAC and refrigeration mechanics and installers is projected to grow 14 percent from 2014 to 2024 — much faster than the average for all occupations, which is between 5 and 8 percent, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment for sheet metal workers is projected to grow 7 percent between 2014 and 2024, according to the bureau.

“(Middle schools and high schools) need to be honest with the students. They push so many kids to go to college without a plan,” said Bill Roberts, a field technical consultant at Lennox Industries, where he’s assigned to the Kansas City district and covers the whole state of Kansas. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-college, but so many students go to college to get the same degree as everybody else, so that the country is flooded with college graduates who all have the same credentials and they can’t find a job.”

But as for attracting these millennials — generally people who are ages 18 to 34 — it’s not easy. Roberts gave three reasons why the HVAC and refrigeration industry, specifically, has had trouble retaining young talent.

“First, so many people want instant gratification. This industry requires patience and hard work,” he explained. “Second, we don’t do enough to make this industry appealing, exciting.”

And third, he said, the HVAC construction industry is so widespread in the kind of work it does that there isn’t one precise way to identify it as a profession. For example, people who work in plumbing can call themselves plumbers and people who work with electricity can call themselves electricians.

“We work with it all and have no clear identity as to what we do,” Roberts said.

 So industry leaders, vocational schools, apprenticeship programs and skilled trades organizations came up with a solution: Bring the students to the industry and bring the industry to the students.

Seeing is believing

For Catie Rogers, a 24-year-old sheet metal apprentice at Local 20 in Indianapolis, exposure to welding at Emmerich Manual High School was life changing. 

Rogers, who just finished the second semester of her fourth year in a five-year program, said she “couldn’t even read a tape measure” prior to selecting the welding class as an elective.

“When I got into the apprenticeship, the rest of the guys (had worked) with their dads in the garage or they were in that type of environment,” she said. “When I started, I was so intimidated … because I’m super girly. I’m a mom. I get my lashes done. I get my nails done.”

As the only woman in Local 20’s apprenticeship program in Indianapolis, Rogers acknowledged that she struggled with the physical demands of the job and lewd comments from some of her fellow male workers, but said she stuck through it thanks to her stubbornness and advice from her grandmother. Now she’s “fabricating and beating duct together” alongside her co-workers, and she’s getting paid to do it.

“I fell in love with this environment,” she said. “I’m so proud to be a sheet metal worker. I’m so proud that I have a different type of job than most females my age.”

Rogers isn’t alone in her praise for the industry and the different opportunities that are available to those who want to learn a trade. Representatives at SkillsUSA — a nonprofit partnership of students, teachers and industry leaders who are working together to ensure America has a skilled workforce — are helping more than 300,000 member students and instructors in middle schools, high schools and colleges by offering national-level contests, scholarship opportunities and programs like its Work Force Ready System and Student2Student Mentoring.

Roberts, who is co-chairman of the SkillsUSA national technical committee for its annual HVAC and refrigeration contest, said SkillsUSA has played a huge role in shattering some of the industry’s stereotypes.

“For years, the stereotypes of students going to a trade school were associated with trouble students. This is not the case, and trade schools have done a better job promoting themselves,” he said. “SkillsUSA has been a huge help in shattering those types of stereotypes.”

Other national events, such as Manufacturing Day and the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Apprenticeship Week, are increasing engagement with millennials on social media through hashtags like #ApprenticeshipWorks and #MFGDay. And if you browse through those tags on Twitter and Instagram, it’s nearly all the proof you need to see how varied and diverse the skilled trades are.

“I know going to Michigan or going to Chicago, the sheet metal industry looks very different than it does here in Indianapolis and that’s a good thing,” Slone said. “Showing the variety of the things you can do and where you can go with that, I think that’s pretty exciting. As a high school student, that would’ve excited me to see what I can do as a sheet metal worker.” 

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or email devriesj@bnpmedia.com