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Even In A Tough Job Market, Young Workers Avoid 'Middle Skill' Jobs

D.J. Teate with Morris Jenkins, servicing a customer's furnace. Photo: Scott Graf

D.J. Teate with Morris Jenkins, servicing a customer's furnace. Photo: Scott Graf The latest unemployment rate in North Carolina is over 10 percent. The state says close to a half a million people want to work, but can't find a job. Yet, even with numbers like that, there are industries that can't find enough qualified workers to fill certain specialized positions. And even in the difficult job market, they're having a particularly difficult time attracting young people. D.J. Teate is 25-years-old. He just started at the Charlotte company Morris-Jenkins. This year, he'll make close to $40,000. The company has some technicians who make over $100,000. Teate doesn't have a 4-year degree. To some, that may be a big deal. To him, it's not "I don't really worry about what people think," Teate says. "It makes me happy, so as long as I'm happy, that's fine with me." Now, meet Ken Carpenter Jr. He runs his family's fabrication plant in Polkton, about 40 miles east of Charlotte. Business is good, and the factory has grown to about 130 employees. But Carpenter wishes it was more. His biggest need right now? Welders. He says he could put 5-to-10 new welders to work right away. Carpenter will pay a good welder close to $40,000. That's quite a bit of money in Anson County, where about a quarter of the population lives in poverty, and the unemployment rate has been 12 percent. Family health insurance is $100 a month, and there's a 401K program. Still, Carpenter can't find enough good young welders. The people he does hire often don't work out. He says there's a sense of entitlement. Carpenter doesn't want to bash young people, but thinks today's young worker is different. They have a hard time committing to factory work. He calls it an 'Xbox mentality'. Safety concerns led to a ban on cell phones on the plant floor. "There's so much texting, so much connectivity," he says. That disconnect doesn't bode well for the future of US manufacturing, says Eric Seleznow, with the National Skills Coalition in Washington. He says between now and 2018, about half of all new US jobs will be these "middle skills" jobs. They're jobs that need some formal training, but not a bachelor's degree. He says about 10 percent of these jobs are unfilled. Seleznow says that's not good for states like North Carolina. "You've got to be able to meet the skill needs of business to be able to be competitive, to be able to grow the economy to be able to lift ourselves out of this recession," said Seleznow. Seleznow thinks more young people would take in interest in middle skill jobs, if they knew more about them But he thinks too many kids are steered toward expensive years of college that for many, lead to student debt, but not a degree. "There's a lot of conversation about that," Seleznow says. "And I think there's a need to probably strengthen the guidance kids and parents are getting in where the real world jobs are, and how to get them, and that maybe college isn't for everybody, or college can come in chunks over time." In Charlotte, CPCC's Harper Campus is undergoing an expansion. There's been an increased interest the last several years in the skilled trades. Steve Corriher oversees the school's training programs. Corriher says a lot of the people signing up for classes lately have been older, laid off workers needing a new career. For young people, he thinks the lack of interest comes from, in part, a stigma: middle skilled jobs are you what you do when you can't go to college. He says parents, himself included, are as guilty as anyone. "As parents, you always want something better for your kids than you had," Corriher says. "You always say you don't want them to have work hard, you want them to go get a 4-year college degree. And the image of construction and the trades has always kind been one of those that's taken a beating for that." Corriher says his students usually get certified in two to three years, for as little as $5,000. A report released by the Project on Student Debt last fall shows the average bachelor's degree recipient today takes on debt of five times that. Corriher says with numbers like that, it's time for that stigma to go away. "It's finding your place, it's finding your niche where you can be successful," he says. "Finding a place that you can grow and prosper. And that's not a bad thing. That's actually a very good thing." To get more young people interested, Corriher says schools like CPCC and local industry need to do a better job of reaching into local high schools to educating kids on the pluses of middle skills careers. Teate, meanwhile, the heating and air technician we met earlier, calls his line of work 'reliable'. People need heat in the winter and want air conditioning in the summer. And for him, that translates into job security.