PEMBROKE – This weekend, thousands of South Shore high school seniors will toss their mortarboards in the air and go home with freshly minted diplomas, eager to chart their own paths.
David Kingsley would love it if even just a few of them would come work for him.
But Kingsley, the co-owner of a Pembroke waterproofing company, knows that the majority of this spring’s graduates will head off to four-year colleges in the fall, and many of those who don’t will likely be hired by other companies desperate for skilled, and even unskilled, workers as the region’s unemployment rate hovers below 3 percent.
That’s because his is among the countless companies statewide now scrambling to find employees amid a skills shortage that has prompted tens of millions of dollars in state spending and has some calling on high schools to encourage students to consider vocational training and trade work as an alternative to four-year college degrees that are increasingly accompanied by crippling student debt.
“We want to grow the company,” said Kingsley, who co-owns Watchman Waterproofing and has about 17 employees. “We want to expand, but we can’t because we just don’t have the help.”
Kingsley is hardly alone, and his niche industry is not the only one struggling to find workers.
Companies in health care, information technology, construction and manufacturing, among others, are all clamoring to fill positions that are drawing few applicants despite opportunities for advancement and salaries that in some cases approach $80,000 or $90,000 a year without requiring a bachelor’s degree.
With no other options, companies are sending recruiters out of state, sweetening benefits packages and in some cases, overlooking red flags – particularly past drug use – that at another time would have disqualified workers.
State officials are well aware of the problem, which in 2015 prompted Gov. Charlie Baker to form a “workforce-skills cabinet,” made up of his secretaries of education, workforce and economic development, to find ways to better match the skills of the state’s workers with those needed by its employers.
Since then, the state has plowed tens of millions of dollars into bolstering vocational and technical high schools, expanding employer-training programs and helping schools buy advanced equipment and software, including 3-D printers and industrial robots. For the coming fiscal year, which starts July1, Baker has proposed increasing skills gap spending to $18 million.
“The governor really is serious about making sure these gaps are closed and we address the deficiencies we know will be there if we do nothing,” Rosalin Acosta, the secretary of labor and workforce development, said last week.
Some of the high-wage skilled occupations that are most in demand in southeastern Massachusetts and do not require a bachelor’s degree.
Acosta, who lives in Quincy, said the state expects that in just three key sectors – manufacturing, information technology and health care – the number of jobs that go unfilled in Massachusetts could reach 25,000 by 2024 if the state does not make significant investments in the skills gap.
Despite the state’s spending, the state’s vocational high schools don’t have enough room for all the students who wish to attend them.
At South Shore Vocational Technical High School, for example, there are 75 applications now on the wait list, not including applications that have not been completed.
Thomas J. Hickey, superintendent of the Hanover school, said students need to start receiving information about opportunities besides college even earlier, starting as early as middle school.
“For kids and families who are investing in the college degree route, they may have not had a lot of exposure to how that may translate into a career,” he said. “There are too many stories of people with degrees and nowhere to go, not really sure where they want to do.”
The result is a skills gap that persists despite the millions spent to close it, according to business owners on the South Shore.
Peter Forman, president and chief operating officer of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, said he has heard from employers in a variety of fields, including home health care, nursing and even trucking, struggling to find workers with even lower-level skills. In some cases, he said, employers are going to Rhode Island to recruit workers or overlooking things in candidates’ backgrounds that may have disqualified them in the past.
Kingsley, who started Watchman Waterproofing in 2011, said he would like to hire 10 to 15 new employees, nearly doubling his staff, if he could only find the people. And in his case, Kingsley says he doesn’t need skilled workers, just hard-working laborers he can train on the job. He said those laborers could advance to foreman within a year or so and potentially make up to $75,000 a year, including bonuses.
Kingsley said he has gone to some work fairs to talk to high school students, but few show interest.
“Most of the kids now, they’re just told to go to college, right from the get-go,” he said. “Everything from kindergarten up, they’re told to go to college.”On the South Shore, the shortage of what are sometimes referred to as “middle-skill workers” – meaning those who have more education or training than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree – has been exacerbated by the age of the region’s workforce, much of which is rapidly approaching retirement, and the fact that many of the area’s workers leave the region to go to work every day.
A state workforce planning blueprint for southeastern Massachusetts completed this spring found far more people leave southeastern Massachusetts for work than come into it, resulting in a net loss of about 135,000 workers. At the same time, the report estimated that nearly a quarter of the region’s population will be over the age of 65 by 2035, compared with 14 percent in 2010.
“The workforce is getting a little older, which is why we’re so hot on pushing housing and drawing younger people to the South Shore,” Forman said.
But some high school students and their parents say a bigger problem can be found in the region’s schools, where they say students are under immense pressure to go on to four-year colleges and are at times ignored by their guidance counselors if they express interest in pursuing vocational training – if they’re even aware of it as an alternative.
“My guidance counselor didn’t help me at all,” said Frank Crowley, a 20-year-old Scituate High School graduate now working in boat engine maintenance and repair. “It was all about, ‘Get the best scores you can on the SATs and ACTs. Do both of them just to be sure.’”
Many Massachusetts high schools have been working to improve and expand their vocational programs, but they’re also under pressure themselves to produce more college-bound graduates. Those graduates are surveyed about their post-high school plans each spring, with their responses published on the website of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In the most recent survey, taken last spring, the percentage of students in Quincy and 10 towns south of Boston who said they were going to a four-year college ranged from a little more than half in Weymouth to nearly 98 percent in Cohasset. With the exception of Weymouth, all of those towns have seen their college-bound rate has rise over the last two decades – by more than 19 percentage points in the case of Hull – meaning there are fewer graduates pursuing vocational and technical training instead of a bachelor’s degree.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education stresses on its website that the work of school guidance counselors should be focused both on college and career readiness, but Crowley, who now lives in Marshfield, said that message doesn’t appear to have reached staff at Scituate High School, from which he graduated two years ago.
“I felt pressured into going in the sense that guidance didn’t even acknowledge that there were trades,” said Crowley, who left college after a few weeks and has since gone to work for Hingham’s Freedom Boat Club, where he says he has received three promotions in 14 months. “They only pushed kids to go to college.”
Crowley said that trying to pursue a trade career at Scituate High, where nearly 86 percent of graduates said they planned to attend a four-year college last spring, felt like swimming against the current. Some in his family didn’t agree with his decision, and he said he felt like he was laboring under a stigma clinging to any pursuit that didn’t result in a bachelor’s degree.
“All my friends, all my teachers, were going one way, and I was going the other,” he said. “I was the black sheep in a herd of white sheep.”
That sense of stigma can be particularly strong in the South Shore’s more affluent towns, said Bill Fleming, a Hanover resident and president of the New England Mechanical Service Contractors Association.
“If a kid wants to work with his hands, that’s probably looked down upon,” he said. “Why, I don’t know. It can be very rewarding as a career.”
Ron Griffin, Scituate’s superintendent of schools, could not be reached this week, but even Acosta, the state’s workforce development secretary, acknowledged that educators in the past may have given parents the wrong message about how important a college degree is to a successful career and a happy life.
“We’re sort of conditioned as parents to guide our children to a four-year college,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve given parents enough ammunition to say, ‘Look there are other avenues you can take.’”
By Neal Simpson, The Patriot Ledger
Published June 1, 2018