Forward Focus: West Michigan employers look to fill trade jobs

West Michigan employers said they constantly search for young, qualified trade workers as the workforce continues to age. (WWMT/Jake Berent)

An aging workforce and lack of qualified, young candidates has caused a shortage of workers across all trade industries in Michigan, according to industry experts.

Essential jobs like Heating and Cooling (HVAC) and automotive technicians are essential and pay good wages, but they seem to be constantly searching for new hires.

Brad Bartholomew, co-owner of Bartholomew Heating and Cooling, said it’s not just a few jobs around the area. The issue is on a much larger scale.

“Nationwide we're 1.2 million people short in the HVAC industry, and in Michigan specifically, we're about 22,000 people short,” Bartholomew said. “Skilled trades are very important, well paying, very well-respected jobs that can't be moved out of country or replaced by technology. These are jobs that are going to exist, and need to exist. We need this kind of work.”

Bartholomew said he sees employees who work the same job for decades live a great quality of life, making anywhere from $30,000 a year when they first start, all the way up to $75,000 a year when they reach a level of elite experience.

"People don't grow up so much working on things, I grew up on my grandfather's dairy farm, and I learned to fix things. Kids now a days aren't working to repair things, they're in front of a screen,” Bartholomew said.

He has had to rely on finding candidates like Max Maddox, 20, who knew he did not want to be stuck working in a career that left him unsatisfied.

“Sitting behind a desk isn't really my thing. Through all the years of school, it drove me nuts, so getting out here and working with my hands is what I prefer to be doing,” Maddox said. “All I hear from older guys is, 'Oh it's really nice to see a young guy in the trades, you don't see that very often.'"

Maddox was in high school when a counselor from Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) came in and peaked his interest in the HVAC industry.

"I kind of just put my foot in the door. She signed me up for some classes, started taking them and started loving it,” Maddox said. "Then I was working [sic] part time during schooling, and they easily worked around that. Once I finished and got my certificate, I started working full time."

KVCC is a training ground where many local companies who employ trade workers find young candidates. Erick Martin, the technology division department chair, said KVCC’s curriculum constantly changes and adapts because of close partnerships with local companies.

“We work with advisory committees specifically from the industry. The industry tells us what content we need to teach that will suit them, the young folks, coming into the industry,” Martin said. “High-skilled trade jobs are in demand here in Michigan, and all across the United States.”

Industry partnerships led many of Martin’s students to find jobs before they graduate from two-year degree or certificate programs from KVCC. Joe Leeson, who is in his second year, said he has been instructed by his part-time employer what classes to take to best prepare him for his career path.

“With this degree, I'm hoping to just go straight into the workforce. I've got offers from Pfizer, I'm currently working in the Midlink business park over on Sprinkle,” Leeson said. “My boss told me he wanted me to take a class in this room specifically. It was designing a small engine. That was incredibly awesome. I was able to go through, design everything myself.”

Leeson is in the Computer Aided Design (CAD) and Engineering Design Technology Manufacturing (EDMT) program, which incorporates a wide range of knowledge and skills that apply across several trade fields. He has learned how to design using computers, and how to use machines and tools to turn that design into a finished product.

“You have to know the different materials, different things your cutting. You have to know where to cut it, where to bend it. Not all materials are going to work the same,” Leeson said. “To actually come out here and work on something with my hands, and to figure out, 'Okay, this is what the prints say, this is what it's actually going to take to do it.’ From my point of view behind a computer, I can say this is what it's going to take and this is what's needed to complete something.”

Bill Kring, co-chair of KVCC’s Engineering Design and Manufacturing Technology program, said hands on experience is important in trade fields now more than ever, and cross-training prepares students to work in a wide range of positions.

“Our welding students will take basic machine tooling. Our machine tooling will take a electricity class. These are huge advantages to the industry,” Kring said. “A lot of students know what engineering is so they take a lot of math and science, but they forget about the technical side. So that technical side and that connection is kind of missed. It's hard for high schools to fill that need.”

Kring said you don’t have to go far to see there are plenty of openings for skilled trade jobs.

“You can drive around Kalamazoo right now and see that almost every dealership has a hiring sign for mechanics,” Kring said.

A sign outside the Hayes Jeep dealership on Stadium Drive read, “Mazda Techs Needed.” Greg Muck is the service director for Orrin B. Hayes Incorporated, which owns Mazda, Jeep and Mercedes-Benz dealerships in Kalamazoo. He said he is almost always looking to hire good, young mechanics.

“We're always looking for good technicians. It's kind of a dying breed, kids just don't want to get into it anymore. The average age of most of our technicians is 30 to 35 years old,” Muck said. “It's a good job, we work probably 40 to 50 hours a week. It's a long week, but the pay is good if you keep your nose to the grindstone and stay busy. The average technician can make $40K a year up to $75K a year, no problem.”

The days of required auto-body and shop classes in the high school curriculum are gone, but some school districts have started to look at bringing back or increasing their offering when it comes to trade classes.

Branch County Independent School District dropped their building trades classes five years ago, but now Randy Sowles, director of Career and Technical Education at the Branch Area Careers Center, said he is looking to bring back the program. He said he met with an advisory committee of industry professionals in December who said they are in need of a new, young workforce.

“People in our community say we’re lacking the workers in these areas, construction trades, carpentry, plumbing and masonry,” Sowles said. “We’re in the beginning phases of identifying what the program might look like.”

Sowles said will look at classes, as well as on-the-job training programs, that allow students to work and earn money as they learn a trade while still in high school.

Unions serve as another source of trade-skill education. Carpenters Local 525 and Kalamazoo Plumbers and Pipefitters UA Local 357 both advertise their training and apprenticeship programs on their websites.

Some companies also offer paid training. A quick search of Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo using showed dozens of open positions for trainees and apprentices. Listings include HVAC and automotive technicians, machinists, plumbers, electricians, tailors, dog groomers, jewelers and die makers.

Training trade workers changes every day with the advent of new technologies.

“Everything is computerized nowadays, so you have to keep up with those trends in the industry,” Martin said. “I think people have a perception about manufacturing work, like dark, dank, dirty. Not real attractive. And what you see now, is the manufacturing industry is a very clean environment. With the advancements in technology, we're also a very high-tech industry.”

Students have a better grasp on emerging technology, however Bartholomew said the candidates he has seen applying to his HVAC company do not have the same hands-on training experience he grew up with in his time.

The pay, steady hours and benefits are sometimes overlooked, according to Bartholomew.

“Many of the jobs starting out are in the $12-15 [per hour] range, and you can move up very rapidly to the $20's and $30's quite easily,” Bartholomew said.

According to, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, here’s what some workers can expect to make in certain trade fields (depending on experience and employer):

  • Automotive Specialty Technician: $19,970 - $63,730
  • HVAC Mechanics and Installers: $29,530 - $72,820
  • Industrial Machinery Mechanic: $29,370 - $78,500
  • Plumbers, Pipefitters and Steamfitter: $42,590 - $92,710
  • Machinist: $26,660 - $57,070
  • Carpenter: $27,310 - $60,290
  • Mechanical Drafter: $22,700 - $63,980

As far as the future is concerned, those in education and the industry plan to keep doing everything they can to attract a new, younger workforce to the trade industry. Bartholomew and other companies have great relationships with local community colleges, and do most of their recruiting there. Kring said KVCC always works to train new, competent workers, and they do not see all the open skilled-trade jobs being filled anytime soon.

“We cannot supply enough skilled workers to our manufacturing base here in Kalamazoo on a regular basis,” Kring said. “There's just not enough of them, so they are always looking for a new person.”

You can see more findings and data on wages from the Department of Labor here. Find more information on KVCC’s programs here.

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