Blue collar workers prepare for a changing market

Workers in the construction industry have been some of the hardest hit during this recession, and that local blue collar...

Joe Hebert made it halfway though the 11th grade before dropping out of high school. At that point, he was directionless.

In 1988, at age 18, Hebert began working for Arctic Alaska as a fish processor on one of the first factory trawlers, and with an abundance of pollock and few industry regulations, he was able to work year round.

“It was a lot of pollock and a lot of work and that translated into a lot of money,” Hebert said. “Even as a processor I made a living wage — I made pretty good money.”

Hebert decided to get a high school diploma in the form of a GED. He also worked his way into a more technical position and became a salaried employee, which kept him even more comfortable financially.

That comfort lasted until the mid-1990s. The company changed hands, eventually becoming Trident Seafoods Corporation. Hebert lost his salaried position and the industry started to be more strictly regulated.

“That’s when the seasons got shorter and shorter,” Hebert said.

That’s also when Hebert began to realize that his career, which had provided him with a family wage without even a high school diploma, would no longer sustain him.

Hebert isn’t alone. There are simply fewer fishing jobs than there used to be, not only because of overharvesting and habitat destruction and subsequent regulation, but also because of market factors such as consolidation.

And the fishing industry isn’t alone, either. Changing market demands, environmental limitations, government regulation, globalization and technology are rapidly changing the way work is done, who does it and the qualifications required for those workers.

Now jobs like Hebert’s — those manual jobs that enabled workers to support themselves and their families without higher education — are the albino elephants of the work world.

By the numbers

Blue collar jobs across the county, state and nation are disappearing and the recession has exacerbated this trend.

Every sector has been affected by the recession — nationwide, from 2008 to 2011, there was an average increase in unemployment of 4.7 points across all industries, said Reinhold Groepler, Employment Security Department regional labor economist.

Still, blue collar jobs have been the hardest hit. Of the industries that saw the largest unemployment rate increases during that period, four would be considered blue collar.

Nationwide, construction saw the greatest unemployment rate increase — it went up 12.3 points; agriculture, fishing, hunting and forestry was second — up 8 points; transportation and warehousing was up 6.3; manufacturing was up 6.1; and food preparation, the only non-blue collar job on the top five list, was up 5.8 points, Groepler said.

Whatcom County shows a similar trend. Comparing September 2008 to September 2010 shows a loss of 5,899 jobs across all industries. Most of those losses — 63 percent — were felt by blue collar workers. Construction took the biggest hit locally, too.

But even before the recession, blue collar jobs were starting to dwindle, at least in their existing form. That’s because many jobs that used to require, at most, a high school diploma started requiring some post-secondary education.

Gone are the days

There are more job requirements than there used to be, and a number of employers will only hire people with degrees in special programs, said Patricia McKeown, president of Bellingham Technical College (BTC).

“They expect them to come in at a much higher level than they used to,” McKeown said. “Gone are the days when a high school degree was sufficient.”

On-the-job training used to be adequate for a lot of blue collar jobs, but rapid technological advancements have changed that.

“Technology is changing at an incredibly quick pace,” McKeown said.

And as a technical college, BTC must keep up with those changes to ensure students can operate new equipment, which explains why one of BTC’s most expensive budget line items is equipment.

“Technology is causing us to increase investment in equipment to stay current at a much faster pace,” she said.

In the last five years, equipment costs have increased as the college has added more sophisticated technical programs to meet market demands, McKeown said.

Some projections show that the amount of new technical information is doubling every two years — meaning growth is exponential, and that makes keeping up with technology difficult, not only for educational institutions and students, but also for workers.

The combination of technological advancements and the recession resulted in an increased number of dislocated workers, especially older workers. Four years ago at BTC, the average student age was 28; now it’s 33.

“This change in four years is dramatic and is attributable to the number of dislocated workers we have on campus,” McKeown said.

At WorkSource, a government-sponsored tool for jobseekers, the average age of visitors may also be a bit higher than it used to, said Gary Smith, Northwest Workforce Council general manager.

“The people that have been hit the hardest in this recession are the older workers,” Smith said.

But losing a job, even one held for decades, does not have to be the end of the employment road for an older worker with limited skill sets.

Changing with the times

When technology and market demands change, people lose their jobs through no fault of their own and they respond in a variety of ways to that loss, Smith said. Some are angry, others are in denial — they just want to wait it out until a familiar job opens up — and others are proactive.

“They say, ‘Oh man. The world is shifting. I need to figure out what’s next,'” Smith said.

At WorkSource, the goal is to help everyone get to the point of being proactive, he said.

“This is a process,” Smith said. “People get to different stages of recognition in their own time.”

When Hebert realized the fishing industry had changed and he would no longer be able to make a family wage in the career he knew, he was scared to change occupations.

“It’s difficult trying to reinvent yourself and learn something new in midlife,” Hebert said.

But that’s exactly what he did. The shorter fishing seasons left plenty of time for Hebert to attend school. He got his associate degree from Whatcom Community College, transfered to Western Washington University in 2004 and received his bachelor’s degree in 2008.

Hebert didn’t stop there. With the help of the state’s dislocated worker program and Workforce Investment Act training dollars, he was able to get a master’s in eduction and a teaching certificate with an English endorsement.

Today, Hebert is teaching adult basic education classes at Skagit Valley College. He is also helping develop curriculum for BTC’s anaerobic digester program, which was a recent addition to the college’s offerings.

Preparing for the future

BTC doesn’t just keep equipment up to date, it also creates and kills programs based on market demands. The anaerobic digester program was developed because there is a growing need locally for people to run and maintain the digesters, which produce power from methane gas in cow manure.

“Gone are the days when a high school degree was sufficient.”

Program development is based on market research, employer demand and student interest.

“BTC really prides itself on its ability to address the economy’s changing needs — to nimbly change curriculum and add programs when the need has been substantiated,” McKeown said.

Programs that got the ax at BTC include appliance repair, commercial fishing and retail management. But new programs based on current local needs have emerged in their place.

In the past few years, BTC has developed and expanded programs to prepare students for jobs at local refineries and to fill vacancies for radiology and surgery technicians and veterinary assistants.

There is still a need for skilled workers, and that need will grow, especially as baby boomers retire, McKeown said.

Four years ago, colleges were focused on filling positions that were soon to be left vacant by retiring baby boomers, but when the recession hit, a lot of boomers delayed retirement, McKeown said. Data show those retirements will probably pick up in the next five to six years, she said.

Those vacancies will provide ample opportunity for those interested in pursuing the trades, Smith said. The blue collar sectors aren’t dead. They just aren’t what they used to be.

“The trades are very important to the economy and they still hold the promise of good careers,” he said. “There is great opportunity in them yet, however the skill level is higher than it once was.”

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