By Hayley Day
There was a time when potential employees would line up outside an island business looking for a job.
“Ten, 15 years ago, workers had the ability to do any kind of work we do,” said San Juan’s Albert Jensen and Sons Boat Yard and Marina shipyard president Mike Ahrenius. “Today, you don’t have that.”
It’s labor gaps like these that the San Juan County Economic Development Council wants to fill by offering free trades training courses for county residents. Two, three-month courses will be offered this year, with additional ones over the next five.
The program kicks off in April with a marine maintenance technology course, offered at the Skagit Valley College’s Anacortes campus. Up to 20 participants will receive free tuition, class materials and ferry and shuttle transportation thanks to a state grant the EDC secured in late February.
The course covers repair and maintenance for marine engines, gears, alignments, rudders, as well as equipment aboard vessels like heating, air conditioning and refrigeration.
“It can be easy to find jobs here,” said EDC Director Victoria Compton. “It’s hard to find careers.”
It’s a trend across the nation; as Baby Boomers retire, skilled labor jobs are going unfilled. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, electrician jobs, for instance, are projected to grow 14 percent by 2024 — double the projection for total U.S. occupations.
It’s no different in San Juan County. A 2015 EDC survey showed training for skilled employees to be a top concern for county business owners who participated.
“We get calls, all the time, from contractors and plumbers who can’t find employees,” said Compton.
According to local public schools, about 10 percent of Friday Harbor High School students remain on island after graduation, a little less than 10 percent of Orcas High School graduates and 15 percent of Lopez High School graduates.
It’s those youth, who don’t obtain secondary educations and may be underemployed or unemployed, who Compton wants to match with understaffed businesses. Paid internships, funded by state programs, will be available at eight maritime businesses in the county after students complete the course.
“If we could find someone who owns a toolbox and knows how to use the tools, we’d hire them,” said Ahrenius, who could use one more employee for his current workload.
About four years ago, the shipyard repaired extensively damaged boats, said Ahrenius, but had to stop due to the lack of applicants with the high-level skills needed for that work.
Globalization and the rise of technology have helped to move yesterday’s industrial economy to a knowledge-based one, where hired heads seem to be more lucrative than hired hands. Mike Buckner, director of Orcas High School’s trades education, disagrees.
“There’s a stigma out there that if students get a four-year degree, it’s a given that you’ll make more money,” said Buckner. “It’s not true and I’d like to see that mindset change.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, county residents under age 29 are mostly employed at hotels, restaurants and stores. Construction jobs can make roughly $7,000 to $15,000 more a year than those industries.
Orcas, Lopez and San Juan public high schools offer classic trades courses, like woodworking and culinary arts. On Orcas, it’s called Career and Technical Education; on San Juan, it’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Each program features hands-on training to give students real-life experiences.
“A four-year degree is not the answer for everyone,” said Buckner, who said there is a deficit of island trades workers under age 30. “On-the-job training could be a great solution for students who don’t go to college. Without taking on debt, students can get jobs right after high school.”
Workers with knowledge of tools and basic math are exactly what Alan Di Bona of Swal’lech Construction on Lopez Island needed when he faced labor shortage last summer. Workers had to be stretched across several jobs, causing delays in project timelines.
“It can be a struggle to find skilled workers,” said Di Bona. “We often need apprentice level carpenters.”
To quell struggles like this, the EDC will also manage a construction technology course in October on the islands. A local instructor will train up to 25 students in areas like tools, safety and blueprint reading. Paid internships at local construction companies will also be included after class completion.
“People don’t always see the value of being a carpenter, plumber, electrician, or any number of trades that we support, but there is a lot of work out there,” said Di Bona. “Here on the San Juan Islands, it’s a relatively good paycheck.”
On island, said Di Bona, skilled carpenters often earn additional hours for work like demolition and cleanup that would be given to laborers on the mainland.
The EDC program, said Ahrenius, helps disapprove a long-time island misconception that job openings are rare.
“There are good jobs out here if people want them,” he said.
For more information and applications, visit www.sanjuansedc.org/trades. Applications for the marine maintenance course are due March 24 and include a $75 filing fee.
A plumbing training course is also in the works. Additional program donors include the Port of Friday Harbor, Islanders Bank, Heritage Bank, the Town of Friday Harbor, and San Juan County.