Over the next several years, the United States will face widening skills gaps — one of the most massive among blue-collar workers.
Two million manufacturing jobs are expected to go vacant through 2025, according to the Manufacturing Institute's most recent skills gap study completed in 2015. Meanwhile, nearly three-fourths 70 percent of construction firms asked reported having a hard time finding qualified labor last year and expect the problem to persist or worsen this year, according to the Associated General Contractors of America's 2017 construction survey.
One Michigan workforce development consultancy with a growing Philadelphia presence is bridging the divide. Over nearly four decades, privately-held EDSI (Educational Data Systems, Inc.) has made a business out of helping to place disadvantaged and laid-off workers in jobs, and assessing company needs and finding qualified hires.
"We run programs throughout the country to help people better their lives," said Roe Falcone, EDSI regional director of operations. She heads up welfare-to-work programs and other government- and nonprofit-funded retraining efforts that cover the Philadelphia area out of Chester, Pa. The $50 million company with 650 employees operates in 10 states.
Last summer, EDSI brought one of its latest ventures to Philadelphia. As part of the PennAssist: Bridging the Gap program, it created a three-week construction boot camp to prepare 44 participants for apprenticeships.
Jose Miguel Morales Jr. was a Philadelphia vo-tech graduate who had dropped out of college and had an interest in becoming an electrician. The boot camp, said the 22-year-old from Tacony, was a chance to get a union job. "I jumped at the opportunity," said Morales, who is working as an apprentice electrician on the Lincoln Square project at Broad and Washington streets.
While the bulk of EDSI's work involves public-sector contracts, like the boot camps, it also provides services to the private sector — making it unusual in the field of workforce training.
Ken Mall, EDSI's managing director of workforce consulting, works with private companies, often in the manufacturing industry, "to help define what their skills needs are today as well as what they might be in the future."
One tool EDSI uses is its proprietary Skilldex, a Web-based system that identifies the skill needs of employers, especially those short on workers. Then job seekers are assessed against task-specific profiles. Skilldex matches job seekers to employers as well as highlights gaps and ways to close them through training programs.
Several trends have made the hunt for qualified workers all the worse, according to Mall. The graying of the workforce — read baby boomer retirements — has generated even more hard-to-fill openings. On top of that, increased automation and technology-heavy advanced manufacturing are proving challenging for current employees. "We see the technology gap still getting bigger," Mall said.
But the largest lack of skills is not necessarily technical know-how. It's basics — reading, writing and 'rithmetic.
"A blue-collar worker needs to know how to read a computer screen nowadays," Mall said of the persistent problem.
In addition to the 3 Rs, employers want hires with problem-solving skills and the ability to work in teams and resolve conflicts.
Companies, Mall said, tell him that "if we can hire somebody who can meet basic requirements for reading and writing and math, and can show some problem-solving skills and is dependable, show up to work on time every day, we will teach them the technical skills."
To meet these needs, EDSI began developing boot camps in 2016 and partnering with local workforce development agencies, employers and unions. The two- to four-week training sessions are intense, focused programs that give participants skills, including industry-relevant math and writing, to succeed on the job.
"People coming into our doors have completely different educational levels, completely different skill sets," Falcone said. "The boot camp can meet a lot of people where they are and help get them where they need to be."
This year, Philadelphia-area boot camps will focus on manufacturing, healthcare and customer service — industries, like construction, that are struggling to find enough qualified applicants, according to Mall.
At the Construction Boot Camp, Morales spent full days learning about the various trades that work a construction site and practicing soft skills, such as teamwork and good work habits. He also was exposed to technical information and relevant construction-site math problems. A capstone project focused on career goals.
"But honestly," Morales said, "one of the best things I appreciated about the program was that they allowed me to network with a lot of important people." The boot camp organizes panel discussions with industry folks, such as union and apprenticeship program leaders and owners of construction companies.