Missing the point

Policymakers talk about creating jobs, when they should focus on preparing people to fill the jobs that already exist.

Policymakers and the media like to talk about the need to create jobs. It’s a popular message that misses the point. For a significant portion of the country, there is an abundance of well-paying jobs that can’t be filled due to a lack of candidates.

My company, Wells Concrete, is a Minnesota-based manufacturing company that constructs pre-stressed concrete panels for building structures. It’s an exciting time for Wells in that we are a 60-year-old company that has almost tripled in size over the past six years. During this time, we have invested considerably in innovative equipment, processes and procedures and the result is that while we have almost tripled in volume, our employment has roughly doubled from approximately 450 employees to around 900. The troubling part of this story, however, is that our ability to continue growing has stalled, purely based on our inability to find employees at various levels of labor, such as trades, drafting, supervision, etc. Our investment in innovation can only go so far since there is a level of craftsmanship in what we do that simply can’t be automated.

Wells is currently trying to fill approximately 50 jobs in Minnesota alone. Many of these jobs require no specific education or experience and pay approximately $35,000 – $50,000 per year, plus a full benefit package that includes above average healthcare and retirement. The work can be strenuous, but it is inside and in a clean, climate controlled, well-lit environment. In addition, we constantly strive to engage everyone who works for Wells by doing our best to maintain a family atmosphere and keep people informed.

There are multiple reasons for this labor shortage, but I believe one of them is the way we measure public education. Over the years, the success of a school district is increasingly measured on the percentage of high school graduates who continue on to a four-year college or university. This may be an admirable goal in theory but the reality hasn’t worked out. Let me tell you why.

Not all students are interested in or suited for four-year universities.

The public high school curricula have moved away from teaching basic industrial arts programs that were prevalent in the past.

Students who do not attend four-year universities are often viewed as “bringing down the average” and thus, a negative social stigma.

An alarmingly high number of students who do enroll in four-year universities do not complete a degree and can’t monetize their college coursework to satisfy student loan obligations.

The impact of all this created an imbalance between the positions required to maintain a healthy economy and the number of people pursuing many of these positions. In effect, there are an alarming number of well-paying jobs that employers are not able to fill because students are encouraged to pursue paths they’re not suited for.

Minnesota’s manufacturers offer ample opportunities for young people to enter productive, meaningful careers. All we need to do is restore pride in the trades, which starts with restoring balance in the public education system.

Dan Juntunen was named President/CEO for Wells Concrete in January 2011. In this position, he is responsible for all phases of the organization, which include four production facilities, multiple in-house field crews and a strong market presence in five states as well as one Canadian province. Prior to being named President/CEO, Dan had served as the Chief Financial Officer since 2007.