State steps up technical training for trades straining to find people

Stefun Hawkins knows he’s a wanted man.

Hawkins, 34, has just graduated from Zip Code Wilmington’s 12-week computer code writing program and is in the process of being interviewed before moving into the computer world.

Stefun Hawkins

“There’s always going to be a need for people who go to college,” he said. “But companies have a need for people who have the skills they need to keep things working. It’s like there’s always going to be a need for plumbers and HVAC guys.”

Hawkins’ story points to a growing trend, not just in Delaware, but around the country: There’s an increasing demand for skilled workers in everything from computer coding, to electrical work, to plumbing and cooking for everything from high-end restaurants to diners and fast food.

Just ask Gov. John Carney.

“One of the biggest frustrations I hear when I talk to contractors is that there’s more work than they can handle because they don’t have enough skilled carpenters, plumbers or electricians,” he said. “At the state level, I know that if there were more skilled workers available, we could be doing more.”

While Delaware’s always been generous in its support for college-bound youth — the state covers the cost of college exams — it was slower coming to the game when it came to technical training. Despite having one
of the nation’s premier community college systems and vocational schools, the emphasis always seemed to be focused on college prep programs.

Carney says he thinks that was driven by parents, many of whom had trade or factory jobs but who wanted more for their kids.

“They thought college was the ticket to a good life and really pushed it on their kids because they didn’t want them to be better off and didn’t want them to have to do dirty, sometimes, dangerous jobs,” he said. “I think that’s starting to change now. I think they’re seeing that the jobs are important and pay very well.

“But it’s like turning an aircraft carrier,” Carney said. “You can turn it, but it doesn’t turn very fast.”

Veteran lobbyist Robert Byrd’s seen the ship take a few turns over the years. In the 20th century, some trade classes, such as shop or distributive education, were mandatory parts of the curriculum. They gave students a taste of the options open to them. But he noted that for about the past 40 years, those courses have been pushed to the wayside by increased academic demands.

“You used to be able to get a good job that could support a family with a high school education,” he said. “But that started changing and that helped push going to college. Now though, with the economy the way it is, you can come out of college with good grades and a degree, and all that student debt, and still have a hard time getting a good job that can support a family while the kid who went through an apprenticeship program or DelTech and they’ve got that good job.

Byrd said policymakers have helped that shift by supporting programs, such as the SEED Scholarship, which provides free rides to qualified students for two-year degrees at Delaware Technical and Community College.

Dan Stabb

Dan Stabb, Zip Code’s admissions manager, has been on both sides of the street — as an academic and in his current role. He said the debate between technical training or college has been always been there and will never go away, but added that the economics of today have put a new wrinkle in the discussion.

“Depending on where you go, you could be talking $40,000 a year and then, after two or three years, a student comes to the realization that they aren’t on the path they want. Then they’re faced with the decision to stay on that path or to spend more money to change majors,” he said. “And there are some people who absolutely need to do that. But as more people realize there are other, more affordable options that might be a better fit, it gives them a choice.”

Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, has been at the center of Delaware’s education debate since the 1990, first as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, of which he is now vice chairman and as a member and
co-chairman of the Joint Bond Bill Committee, which writes the state’s capital budget.

He said economics and the demand for skilled work is driving demand for increased technical education, but he says the key is turning out lifelong learners. That’s something that Hawkins, too, says is vital.

“You absolutely have to keep learning,” Hawkins said. “In this business, especially, but in any business, when you stop studying and learning, you become obsolete.”

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