ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS Canyon Ridge High School students Zlatko Novakovic, left, Drayke Cross and Alfredo Mejorado practice drilling holes with a mill on Wednesday, April 16, 2014. Educators around the Magic Valley are focusing on the Industrial Arts as the nation faces a skills gap.

TWIN FALLS • Today’s word of the day is “puddle” — the molten portion of the metal being welded.

This Twin Falls High School building is separate from the academic classrooms. Here, TIG and arc welding tools replace books. Backpacks filled with paperwork disappear as students pull on their helmets, ready to work.

There is no Shakespeare, and that’s just fine with Cristian Estrada, a senior and teaching assistant. English class “just isn’t my thing,” he said.

Estrada wanted to be a surgeon. Now he wants to work on cars, preferably for BMW and Porsche.

“I took classes (in medicine) up until last year, and I found out I’m not really good with needles and blood,” he said. “So this really attracted me a lot more than cutting people open.“

The welding skills Estrada and other students hone each day will be increasingly in demand amid the impending retirement by an entire workforce of baby boomers skilled in the industrial arts — machinists, welders, industrial mechanics, carpenters, machine operators and others.

Each day, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65. More than 2 million skilled workers in manufacturing alone will be needed to replace them by 2018, studies show.

Many of those jobs don’t require a bachelor’s degree, but they do demand a skill set that commands good pay, said Jan Roeser, an economist for the Idaho Department of Labor.

What keeps most employers up at night is how to replace certain gray-haired employees in the next few years, state surveys show.

“The succession plan of their employees is something that they don’t have in place and is nagging at them in the back of their mind. That’s what keeps the line going. And when the line is down, you’re not making any money.”

Manufacturers long have worried about the erosion of skills once held in high esteem, reports the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

About 90 percent of companies reported a moderate to severe shortage of skilled production employees, says a 2005 NAM skills gap study. Those were for jobs such as front-line workers, machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors and technicians.

“Without a sufficient supply of these types of employees, the manufacturing sector will suffer — which, in turn, will have a detrimental impact to the nation’s overall economic health,” NAM reports.

Not for all

In an increasingly technical world, many parents push students to attend college. They don’t see manufacturing as a solid opportunity, Roeser said.

But as the U.S. workplace becomes more global, NAM notes, it is flooded with foreign workers with college degrees.

In the Magic Valley, school counselors and educators increasingly steer students uninterested in college toward technical programs, said L.T. Erickson, director of secondary programs for the Twin Falls School District.

College is important, but administrators are realistic, Erickson said. The one-time stigma about attending a technical school or community college to learn industrial arts is fading.

“There are some really high-end programs you can do really well at,” he said. “You can make a really good living, support a family and buy a home. In a lot of cases, it’s two years of college instead of four.“

Twin Falls High has been shifting “craft classes” into courses that lead students to certification in certain skills, said Principal Ben Allen.

Welding is an example. In the mid-1990s, the school had an “ag welding” class to teach students headed back to the farm how to make minor metal repairs. Now students are “being introduced to things with the idea of getting their certification.“

Along with that change has come a shift in equipment used, said Mike Gibson, director of ARTEC, a Magic Valley-wide technical education charter school. Items found in shop classes decades ago have been replaced by high-technology, high-priced equipment — the machinery students will see in the workplace.

ARTEC offers classes in residential construction, cabinetry, auto mechanics, technology, manufacturing, health occupations and machining at several schools in the area.

Meeting demand

Gibson said ARTEC can’t keep up with demand; its 400 spots usually are filled.

ARTEC is “unique to probably anywhere in the country,” Erickson said. With so many schools and districts as partners, the program allows students to attend classes in Magic Valley schools that otherwise couldn’t provide them.

“I know there were a bunch of students living in Wendell that were traveling every day to Buhl for the automotive program,” he said.

If students trained in those programs want to stay in the area, they’ll likely find work, Roeser said.

In the Twin Falls area alone, demand has tripled for welders, with 142 openings in 2013, up from 58 in 2008. Such is also the case for electricians — 74 openings last year, up from 14 in 2008 — and other professions.

The labor department also expects employment to grow by about one-third in industrial professions. The biggest net change will be in carpentry, where 970 jobs are expected to be created in south-central Idaho by 2020.

Compared with 2010 levels, welding jobs will expand by 23 percent, woodworking by 30 percent and computer-controlled machine tool operators by 36 percent.

Students are best served with a range of skills, Roeser said. Most employable in food processing — one of the Magic Valley’s pillars — are workers who can fix things with their hands and on a computer.

Benefits beyond

Even if students who take technical courses don’t enter such professions, many benefit from the skills they learned, Erickson said.

Nearly half of businesses surveyed said their workers have inadequate “basic employability skills, such as attendance, timeliness and work ethic,” NAM reports. Many Magic Valley companies cite problems with “prioritizing, troubleshooting and critical thinking,” Roeser said.

Nathan Hyer said he hopes his Twin Falls High students learn just that — how to think.

The biggest draw to his computer-aided design and engineering classes is that students can work with their hands. But what’s difficult for many is learning to diagnose and solve the problems they face. Developing such mental processes will serve them well in other endeavors, Hyer said.

“Introducing students to linear thinking is challenging, to say the least.”

Other benefits of career classes aren’t immediately obvious. For example, students in technical programs have a higher-than-average graduation rate, reports the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education.

Nationally, the graduation rate for career and tech students is 90 percent compared with 75 percent overall. High-risk students in such programs are eight to 10 times less likely to drop out in their junior and senior years, the association found.

Estrada said many of his fellow seniors have “no idea” what they’ll do once they graduate. He said many students would be more satisfied at school if they joined a hands-on class.

“They’ll drop out because they’re like, ’This is dumb, I don’t want to do this any more. There’s no reason for me to be here because I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life,” he said.

Allen agreed. Most dropouts are boys, and “they really need to learn with their hands.” The principal said he wishes the school could provide more opportunities and had talked about doing so before the economy crashed in 2008.

“I think it has hurt us, and I think that’s the reason we see a lot more boys dropping out of school than girls,” he said.

While companies may worry about a skills gap and looming crisis in replacing aging baby boomers, ARTEC’s Gibson said he’s confident today’s students will meet the challenge.

“We have always adjusted to the ups and downs of population growth and real strong changes in the economy, and this is something we’ll adjust to as well.”

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