This week, 17 young American men and women will battle it out under 150,000 watchful eyes in a Thames waterfront conference center in London. It's the Olympics of skilled labor, and the U.S. team will competitively plumb, lay brick, make cabinets, wait tables, style hair, and repair cars against 55 other nations.
The WorldSkills competition is an apt metaphor for the global economy, which makes it all the more ominous that the U.S. team has never done particularly well.
"We are now in a global competition for good jobs," says Tom Holdsworth, the spokesman for SkillsUSA, the nonprofit that runs the state and national contests that field the U.S. team. "And the countries that don't have them are in for a world of hurt."
What Is Skilled Work?
Skilled work, like that showcased at WorldSkills, is particularly critical in the modern economy, because those are the kinds of jobs that can't readily be outsourced. Unskilled workers, "those people who are lifting and moving," in the words of Holdsworth, require little education and training, which means new machines can take over those tasks.
Corporations are also quick to take those jobs to countries where labor costs only a fraction of what it does here. Manufacturing jobs in the U.S., for example, have almost halved since 1980, from over 19 million to 11 million.
"Anything that can be computerized has a danger of being outsourced," says Holdsworth. "If you want someone to read X-rays, they can be read just as easily in India as here."
But a country needs skilled people at home. "I'm not going to outsource my car to be repaired," Holdsworth continues. "I'm not going to outsource to China if I need to eat."
In one of the tragic twists of the global economy, skilled tradesmen are often operating and repairing the sophisticated equipment that has replaced their unskilled colleagues.
The phrase "skilled work" typically conjures an image of the manufacturer in overalls, and certainly manufacturing is the largest skilled employer. But skilled work is really any job that doesn't require a four-year baccalaureate degree, but still demands some training, perhaps an apprenticeship of four years or more. No one would deny that the work a doctor does is skilled, but with at least six years of higher education and often lots of debt required, medicine falls under the category of "profession."
Holdsworth has two other definitions of skilled work. It must be hands-on, he says, but also demand analytical or creative thinking. And in our current era of whiplashing technological change, a skilled worker must be continuously learning. "The age when you could learn a skill in college and use that for 30, 35 years ... those days are over."
Where Are The Skilled Workers?
Like the Olympics, WorldSkills offers gold, silver and bronze medals, as well as International Medallions of Excellence for every competitor that earns over 900 out of 1000 points. Reading through the lists of past winners, you notice a pattern: "Korea, Korea, Korea, Japan, Australia, Japan, Korea, Germany..."
Last year, out of 46 competition categories, the U.S. team took home two silvers and four medallions. It's not bad, but it's not good. And you can't blame the metric system for all of it.
"A lot of young people are going into computers," says Don Hatton, the technical delegate for the U.S. WorldTeam, who got into skilled trades as a child in an orphanage, and stayed in them his whole life. "They don't look at these as glamorous professions."
The skilled trades don't just suffer an image problem among young people, but among high school counselors too, who see the road to prestige and high salaries as exclusively through a four-year degree.
"Trades in the U.S. are still looked down upon," says Ray Connolly, a current competition judge in welding. "When you get into high school your counselors are pushing for college preparatory classes and not persuading kids to go the vo-tech route."
"Our schools tend to push college, and to discourage a technical education," echoes Hatton. "But it takes one engineer to design something, and 1,000 technicians to install and service it."
"It's flipped," says Connolly. "The jobs are in the trades, and not your computer IT classes. Because that field is so packed full of candidates looking for that kind of work, while trades is not."
"There's money to be made out there," he adds. "There's white collar money in blue collar trade jobs."
The result is a skilled labor shortage that will cost the 103 largest U.S. manufacturing firms an average of $63 million each over the next five years, according to a survey by The Nielsen Company. Even at the height of the recession, almost a third of American manufacturers reported difficulties finding qualified workers for their openings, reports the National Association of Manufacturers. And it's only getting worse. Over the next decade, 2.7 million baby boomers will retire from the manufacturing labor force.
"This is a generational problem," says Holdsworth.
Holdsworth has been involved in SkillsUSA for decades, and draws a bleak conclusion about America's poor performance in the world arena. "This is a country that hasn't focused on the importance of skilled labor," he says. "We compete against other nations that take the training of their skilled workers more seriously. We better take that wake-up call."
Lack Of Support
One of the reasons that the U.S. team doesn't take home that many medals is that it doesn't compete for a lot of them. The U.S. team is only entering 17 of the competitions, compared to Korea, Australia and Japan, which enter pretty much all of them.
And like so many mysteries, the explanation is money. "We're not competitive enough to compete in a lot of other competitions," says Connolly. "We don't have the backing."
Sending a competitor to WorldSkills is expensive. There are the transatlantic transport costs and hotel stays, and in order for someone to be qualified to compete in the first place, they need to train. That means materials, equipment and space. That means tens of thousands of dollars of cash.
SkillsUSA can't afford that. Only competitors with industry sponsorship can have their day in the international spotlight while other national teams, like Japan and Singapore, are totally government funded. "Every other nation has federal level support for their team and in training those team members," says Holdsworth. "America has a nonprofit educational system representing it."
In other countries, claims Connolly, "their whole team pretty much is sponsored by the government and they have unlimited finances to get their team trained by the best of the best."
Sometimes the Americans get teased at WorldSkills. "Why are you sending such a small team?" Holdsworth says that they're asked. "We're a nonprofit organization trying to send these students," he replies. "We're not the American economy!"
There is one competition in which the U.S. reigns supreme: welding. America took home its first international gold in 1991, thanks to welding prodigy Robert Pope, who also earned the highest score in WorldSkills history.
Pope received exceptional welding training at his high school in St. Petersburg, Fla., and went on to Pinellas Technical Education Center, where Jerry Gaylen helped him hone his skills.
Two years later, Nick Peterson went to WorldSkills in Taiwan to compete in welding, and earned the bronze. Two years after that, Brandon Muehlbrandt won the silver. Muehlbrandt went to the same high school as Pope, and also learned under Gaylen.
"If you get a student to this level, your program has got it going on," say Connolly, who won our country's second ever gold medal, in welding, in 1999. "Then they come back and train other students. It builds on itself."
Connolly has been training Bradley Clink, this year's U.S. welder representative, and thinks he has a good shot at the gold too. Clink says after he earns his degree, he might become a teacher himself.
Welding, unlike most of the other categories, has generous corporate sponsorship. Lincoln Electric, Wesco Gas & Welding Supply, Thermadyne, and Miller Electric all donate materials, equipment, facilities and funds to competitors. A few even pay them while they train. Miller Electric provided Peterson with a $40,000 scholarship to pursue his welding engineering technology degree. And there's good reason: America has a shortage of half a million welders, which is already causing delays and cancellations for many massive infrastructure projects.
"I'd say that without the industry support we have, we wouldn't be any where as close to as competitive as we are," says Connolly.
Things Looking Up
It was the U.S. that really pushed WorldSkills to be more industry-minded. WorldSkills began in Spain in 1947 as a local competition intended to popularize skilled trades and counteract its own impending skilled labor shortage. In 1950, the competition went international, and has grown ever since.
The competition came out of the guilds of Europe and tested a lot of old world skills, claims Holdsworth, like hand-making a car. "They tap away at a car door. That's great craftsmanship, but doesn't represent how the automotive industry is making cars anymore."
SkillsUSA pushed WorldSkills to look more at industry, and now the competition is helping to transform vocational training too. International standards in various trades are forged on WordSkills turf, and SkillsUSA brings that back to teachers across the country.
"We're actually influencing the curriculum of tens of thousands of students. It's like a sporting event," says Hatton.
High school technical academies are becoming more popular, and often have long waitlists. Parents are catching on that a four-year college isn't the only avenue to success and security for their children.
States are increasingly giving grants to expand vo-tech programs, says Connolly. "Colleges are getting welding labs, automotive this and that."
And while a positive step, it would be be better, he thinks, to target kids at an earlier age: "To take a student at the junior high level on a tour of college or vo-tech, so he sees another student welding, working with their hands, sees what they make. And fire a spark, make him think: 'I want to do that when I get to high school.' "
The government is also taking more notice. In June, Obama announced the industry-led initiative "Skills for America's Future," which involves a $2 billion investment in community colleges, a new credentialing system, and more collaboration between industry and training programs.
Over the weekend, the U.S. WorldSkills team went to D.C. to meet with the Department of Education, the House Career and Technical Education Caucus, and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. It might be a little bit of political theater, but sometimes political theater has a purpose.
"Good, formal, middle class jobs are essential," says Holdsworth. "This puts a face on the fact that we better be focusing on that."
But right now, Holdsworth's focus is the competition. How our team performs is perhaps the best litmus test on how our skilled workers measure up against the best in the world.
The goal is simple, in Connolly's words: "I want the United States to go over there and be a head-turner. I want us to be the ones to watch when we show up."
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