Photo via State Rep. Angela Witwer's office.
Photo via State Rep. Angela Witwer's office.

State Rep. Angela Witwer has been a champion of trade schools, which are in a precarious position during the pandemic because skilled trades rely on hands-on learning.

GRAYLING, MI — Students learning skilled trades are stuck in a holding pattern because of the pandemic. 

As schools and universities hash out reopening plans and determine what is done in person or online, trade programs are in a uniquely challenged position. Skilled trades can’t be learned remotely. 

The novel coronavirus pandemic halted the necessary hands-on classes in the electrical program at Kirkland Community College that Adriana Sokalski needed to graduate. 

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“It definitely puts me back. I live in a rural area as it is, it’s kind of hard to find a job up here,” said Sokalski. “In order to try to finish my stuff and have the credentials to apply for a job, it’s very hard.”

Trade schools and programs are as important to consider in the fall as colleges and universities, both for students and legislators.

Why Trade Schools Matter Now More Than Ever

Michigan is facing a dramatic economic downturn thanks to the novel coronavirus. In the effort to recover from that recession, manufacturing will play a key role. Manufacturing is the largest sector of Michigan’s economy and is central to the rebuilding plan of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. 

A study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute found 3.4 million U.S. jobs in skilled trades and manufacturing will need to be filled over the next decade. But as state Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.) explained in the Lansing State Journal in January, the lack of young people pursuing these careers will create a severe lack of skilled trade jobs over the next decade. Even with trade school enrollment slowly rising, the pace to fill the opening jobs is not being met. 

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“These are good, stable jobs that provide a good living wage and offer competitive benefits,” Witwer wrote. “Jobs that are absolutely critical to our communities functioning smoothly and keeping our state and country competitive in the world’s marketplace. These are the jobs that built America, and for generations, have helped men and women provide for their families and build the secure lives they want for themselves.”

Witwer argues that a cultural focus on colleges and universities has stigmatized skilled trades and resulted in the lack of training in those trades noted in the Deloitte findings.

“We need to support an increase in worker training programs and encourage more of our students to consider training in these extremely in-demand and lucrative careers,” she wrote. “Our ultimate goal needs to be building an economy that works for everyone and providing opportunities for all. We will get there, but we need to start providing each and every person in this state the tools to build a life that works for them.”

But the pandemic has placed challenges unique to the trade school system that need to be overcome. 

Skilled Trades Can’t Be Taught Online

Though community colleges were set up to move online — one-third of community college students take at least one online class — some programs like electrical or aerospace engineering have been impossible to operate, Mike Hansen, Michigan Community College Association president, told the legislature’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and Community Colleges.

Hansen said that as the pandemic has put people out of work and plans for economic reengagement have a manufacturing focus, the number of people expected to enroll in community college courses to learn a skilled trade is expected to increase. Hansen pointed to a history of trends following previous economic downturns to support this claim.

“If this recession and these unemployment rates are like past recessions, we know that enrollments at a community college will increase as people who have lost their jobs and have been separated because of the pandemic from their employment, they will be returning to the community college for new skills,” Hansen said.

While some trade classes have done a good job teaching theory courses online, reports Forbes, the necessary hands-on classes still will be needed to gain certification in any of dozens of skilled trades. But leaders of trade schools across the nation agree with Hansen — something must be done to keep training students.

Sokalski illustrates the struggles trade students face during the pandemic. 

She got laid off from her apprenticeship early in the pandemic, and due to a burned-down home has had to move around from place to place. This was a unique challenge for her rural Michigan community, as the digital divide is dramatic. A study done through the Quello Center at Michigan State University found that only 53% of students in rural areas have high-speed internet access, compared to 77% of students in suburbs. The study found that lack of internet access affects test scores, likelihood to pursue higher education, and what career a student may choose.

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“We’ve been bouncing from house to house during all this,” Sokalski said. “Some places don’t have internet or anything like that, so I was trying to do my online homework and it was very hard.”

Ultimately, while remote learning can still be leveraged in some ways, prioritizing trade programs for in-person education is critical to getting the next generation of skilled trade workers in place as a shortage of those workers already threatens manufacturing in the future. 

“The key to America bouncing back is us digging our heels in, being brave and staying the course,” Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics CEO Suzanne Markle told Forbes. “If we react, if we downsize before we need to, or we close a location if we don’t have to — that’s going to delay this whole thing. So I think it’s important for us as an established institution to say, we are going to do the hard thing and keep operating.”

The Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics trains future aerospace technicians, many of whom can’t seek their certifications until in-person education can resume. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.