A skills gap and the next generation of techs

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Gone — or at least dwindling quickly — are the days when a technician could get by solely by being able to “think with his hands,” although that ability remains a critical component of the job. More and more, success also hinges on the ability to “think with your head.”

“You need to be able to do both,” says Ken Rusinek, the director of education at The Landing School in Arundel, Maine, a full-time accredited post-secondary school that offers the option of a one-year diploma program or a two-year associate degree in wooden boat building, yacht design, systems and composite boatbuilding. “The students need to adapt.”

During the next year Soundings Trade Only will carry a series of magazine and online stories on marine manufacturing and skills-based training schools and programs.

The Landing School’s president, Bob DeColfmacker, believes we are seeing a fundamental shift in the value of a formal education and that hands-on learning and apprentice programs are making a comeback, fueled in part by the escalating cost of a traditional college education and by the growing number of job prospects for skilled workers.

We carried a story in yesterday’s Trade Only Today newsletter that said Marinette Marine Corp. was having trouble finding skilled trades workers in Wisconsin to help it build Navy ships and work on other projects.

During the next decade, DeColfmacker says, the United States will face somewhere in the neighborhood of a 14-million-person skills gap, many of those in the trades.

Old-school skills will remain valuable — remember, the average age of a boat today is about 21 years — but staying in step and relevant with current technology will require regular upgrades for the graybeards (myself included) among us.

Working on today’s common rail diesels, for example, requires reading a manual online and then being able to work through a troubleshooting scenario.

“We try to use a lot of experiential learning,” Rusinek says. Learning by doing. That can be challenging — sometimes frustrating — for students and instructors “because you’re making the students think.”

Instructors don’t tell their charges how to do something. Instead, Rusinek says, they are more likely to ask: “Well, what do you think? What are your options?”

And DeColfmacker says there is the real satisfaction and pride that comes from working on projects that actually have a start and a finish, unlike office work that seems to just roll on and on. He points to Matt Crawford’s book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft — An Inquiry into the Value of Work” as both a philosophy and a book that resonates with his students.

“The trades today, in this modern world, give you the chance to have that feeling … that physic reward,” DeColfmacker says.

Look for more on this topic from DeColfmacker and Rusinek in the next issue of Trade Only.

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