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Good intentions have created a 'skills gap'

How often do you hear parents say, "Get a college diploma, it's your ticket to the good life!"

My folks drilled that into our heads, even though both of my parents graduated from technical schools and made a darn good living for our family. They excelled in their vocations, but somehow felt unfulfilled.

Even though my father was a master electrician, he wanted his children to bypass his trade and get a four-year college degree. While he was proud of his work, he never felt it had the same value as an electrical engineer's.

He wasn't alone. Five of my uncles-all electricians-encouraged their children to get college educations, as well. Now, only one of my cousins is an electrician.

The same "college track" message is reinforced in our schools and, too often, success is measured by the number of high school graduates who go to college to become doctors, lawyers and scientists.

Yet, across our state and nation, employers are begging for skilled workers like electricians, plumbers, iron workers, welders and carpenters. As a growing number of these skilled craftspeople retire, employers and unions are scrambling for apprentices to fill the pipeline.

The National Association of Manufacturers calls this the "skills gap," and it's growing wider every day. According to U.S. Department of Labor employment projections, there will be 2.4 million skilled production jobs available for machinists, machine assemblers and technicians in manufacturing alone by the year 2012.

How did this happen, especially when a journeyman electrician in Seattle earns a median hourly wage of $33.43? After all, $70,000 a year plus benefits is a good family wage.

This trend away from basic crafts has been going on for generations.

My grandfather, a lifelong hardrock miner in Butte, Mont., encouraged my father to become a craftsman as a way to escape the danger and uncertainty of underground mining. During the Great Depression and after World War II, going to college wasn't an option for most blue-collar families, but going to a trade school was...especially with Uncle Sam footing the bill for discharged veterans.

My father used the GI Bill to become a journeyman electrician. He excelled at his craft, yet he urged his children to go to college rather than follow in his footsteps.

In our rush to emphasize college degrees, we've forgotten the contributions made by traditional workers and craftspeople. Without my grandfather's work in the mine, there would have been no copper wire for my dad to install in people's homes. Without electricians, our homes would have no lights, no heat, and no running water.

Parents should encourage their children to consider learning a craft. Craftspeople are in high demand and pay good wages.

Schools must do the same. Teachers should encourage students to become electricians, carpenters and machinists with as much vigor as they persuade students to go to college. The skills that schools teach-math, science, reading, writing, and comprehension-are just as valuable to a machinist reading a blueprint as they are to a surgeon reading an MRI.

While folks like my mom and dad may be well-intentioned, they may be unnecessarily narrowing their children's career options. It's important to remember that people, if they continue to learn, work hard, and perform high-quality work, can be fulfilled professionally and make a good life for their families.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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