Ask just about anybody operating a licensed trade company about the availability of skilled labor and you’re likely to see an eye roll and hear an earful. The shortage of labor is acute. Tom Martin discussed one approach to the problem with Todd Johnson, executive vice president, Building Industry Association of Central Kentucky.
Q: What is the status of trade jobs in Central Kentucky today?
A: Dire is a good word. We desperately need more folks in the skilled trades. After the downturn in the economy of the housing market so many of our skilled trade workers left the industry and didn’t come back. That’s left a huge void, not only here in Central Kentucky, but across the country that any construction company, anyone wanting work done in any type of building is facing right now. It extends from skilled trades to CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) people running equipment. It’s rampant throughout — the need for people to come into the trades and construction.
Q: What kind of skills are we talking about here?
A: Before we started our trade school back in 2014, we did a series of surveys and the skill that people were looking for at that time, literally at the top of the chart, was people who will get up and come to work. Someone who will do that like at least three days in a row reasonably on time and someone that’s clean — clean meaning drug-free and just take a bath before you come to work.
Q: Those are skills?
A: It tells you what type of shape we were in back in 2012-2013 as things started to recover. I think that the soft skills are very important. Just the responsibility of coming to work is the big thing we face in the skilled trades, what a lot of us consider a common sense thing. It’s just getting up and coming to work on time and doing your work and coming back and doing it again after you get your paycheck.
Q: There are studies showing that trades people today are generally older than workers in other fields and with retirement and attrition coming up we’ll see additional shortages.
A: Yes. In the state of Kentucky right now, we know through the licensure process for HVAC, plumbing and electrical that the average company owner in those three licensed trades is approaching 60 years old. A lot of those folks don’t have succession plans in their companies or in their families. Most of them are small businesses and it’s going to create a great opportunity for folks to come in to a trade, learn it and in a few years be able to start their own company.
Q: For a long time there’s been this stigma attached to going to vocational school instead of going to college. That seems to be changing now. Would you say that’s right?
A: I would say that’s very much right. Our program is an earn-as-you -learn program and all of our students are working in the trades during the day and coming to school at night. The school systems in Kentucky, especially here in Fayette County and the surrounding counties, are really taking note of the fact that there is a need for skilled labor. You can see that with the academy structure that Fayette County Public Schools just put in place going towards certificates and education that will help students become career-ready right after high school.
Q: Let’s get into your program. Tell us what it is and who might be eligible.
A: The Building Institute of Central Kentucky is a trade school that we started back in 2014. It is an evening program. We have had very good success in our students getting jobs almost as soon as they’re enrolled. We provide training in five different areas right now. The three licensed trades as we mentioned – plumbing, electrical and HVAC — and we also have a program for carpentry and property maintenance. With our year-1 and year-2 students combined we have an employment rate of about 94 percent and some of those who aren’t employed don’t want to be in the jobs in the trade right now. They’re in another career of getting prepared to transfer into another career. We provide an accelerated path to licensure for students which is a huge savings for them and a huge benefit and selling point for an employer. Right now we have about an 85 percent passage rate on the state licensing exam from our students and the average is about 50 percent on their first try. Those students who go back for the second setting are passing at 100 percent.
Q: Are students actually working in these trades and getting practical experience as they’re attending class? These are night classes?
A: Absolutely. 94 percent of our students are working in the daytime in the field that they’re being trained on at night. So that is valuable not only for them to be able to make money but it also helps them in their path to licensure as well. When they come to our school at night all of them are coming into the classroom from the job site. All of our instructors are coming in to teach at night from the job site. So you have hands-on experience in our labs and you also have the practical and theory part going on in the classroom, helping them prepare for their exams.
Q: What’s the tuition?
A: The tuition for our program is only $3,500 a year and all our programs are two years. It starts in September. We take a break around the holidays in December and we’re right back in January and run through about April. So it’s a two-year program. Electrical is a four-year program because that’s state-mandated.
Q: The jobs waiting for graduates of your program, do they pay well?
A: They do pay well. What we’re very happy to see is most of our students are coming in from service jobs. Everything from working in fast food to working at the tire-lubes centers, making minimum wage and they’re automatically getting about a $3 increase starting without any skills at all coming into the program. Most of our students are starting somewhere between $10 and $12 an hour. Once they get their journeyman license, they’re going to be making a salary of somewhere between $45,000 and $48,000 a year with many of them being able to earn up to $60,000 or $70,000 a year with the overtime that they get during the summer and harsh winter months.
Q: When is the next opportunity to start learning?
A: Right now. We’re going to be bringing in a class for January which is not typical but we have such a need built up for jobs and we don’t have enough students right now to fill the jobs. We’re enrolling for the first week of January when classes start. So if folks want to learn more about it, they can find more on our website at BIAcentralky.com or give Bruce Maybriar a call directly at 859-229-6641.
Tom Martin's Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.