Even with thousands of Idahoans out of work, one Boise-based company cant find enough employees. Western States Equipment needs mechanic techs jobs that by definition fall into the middle-skills category.
About half of all Idaho jobs fall into this category. Think mechanics, welders, police officers and air-traffic controllers. These are jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree.
According to the National Skills Coalition, not quite half of Idahos workers are trained for these jobs. While many Idaho schools are ramping up efforts to train workers, the pipeline isnt full yet. So one Idaho business has taken training into its own hands.
Meet Chelsea Schulz. She never dreamed of being a mechanic. Schulz lives in Pasco, Wash., where she started college a few years ago to become a grade school teacher.
I love kids, but I cant be in a classroom all day long sitting there, she says. So, I ended up bouncing around on jobs, seeing what I liked doing.
The job that really made an impression on Schulz was working at an auto shop, but she knew she wanted to do more than change tires every day. So she enrolled in an automotive program in Washington. Schulz, 29, graduated this summer.
My mom and dad said, It took you long enough to figure it out, Schulz says. I love taking apart stuff. Part of it is just maturity you just figure out what you actually like doing. Sometimes you go through dozens of jobs to figure it out.
Schulz is exactly the kind of person Idaho-based Western States Equipment is looking for. The company recruited her and 10 other people from around the region for its paid summer-training program.
Western States estimates it faces a worker shortage of 35 to 50 people over each of the next five years. Thats why the company that sells and repairs Caterpillar machines has started its own 10-week training program informally called the Cat Academy. Think of it like a vo-tech boot camp.
Toby Miller teaches the training program in Boise. Curriculum-wise its Caterpillar specific, he says. In that sense they get a new experience. But were also trying to instill that work ethic we expect. In that sense its unique.
Its the work ethic Miller says is harder to come by. With fewer family farms and ranches to pull young talent from, Western States says its becoming more difficult to find people interested in work thats now a combination of hands-on labor and high-tech computer skills.
Quintin Edwards is a training program recruit from North Idaho College in Coeur dAlene.
I hope I retire doing this, Edwards says. I want to do this for maybe another 25 years, so I hope this is where I stay.
Edwards, 39, is a casualty of the housing bust. He was laid off from his construction job in 2009, and instead of waiting it out, he decided retraining was the best option.
Were working with software and programming and things like that now. It takes a lot of education, Edwards says. Im still learning even after taking two years of schooling, college, and now at the CAT academy I learn every day.
Edwards and Schulz say the program has been a good deal for them. Some of their housing costs are paid for by Western States while theyre living in Boise, plus they work 40-hour weeks and get paid $12 an hour.
When they graduate, the students have jobs waiting in their hometowns or in Western States other shops spread across the West.
The company received $60,000 through the Idaho Department of Labors workforce training grant fund. That covers about half of the programs costs.
Department economist Kathryn Tacke says there will always be some occupations with more openings than people to fill them. In this case, Tacke says machinists, welders, plumbers and high-tech workers such as software engineers are the most in demand across the country, not just in Idaho.
Manufacturing is growing in the U.S., which hasnt happened in more than 15 years, Tacke says. And so theres a need for manufacturing skills that many people didnt develop, because there werent many job openings in manufacturing for a long time.
Tacke says the shortage is compounded by baby boomers retiring from jobs theyve had for decades.
In the classroom at Western States, instructor Miller helps students with a hands-on project.
I think people are under the impression that mechanic jobs are for simple people or for people who dont do well technically speaking, Miller says. Theyre good with their hands. I hear that a lot. And the truth is, we need both.
Thirty-one mechanic techs will have completed Western States training program by the end of the summer. All of them are expected to jump straight into full-time jobs with the company.
Emilie Ritter Saunders: email@example.com. Twitter: @emiliersaunders