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Don Cunningham: Evolving Manufacturing Creates New Demand for Trade Skills

By Colin McEvoy on November 9, 2016

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared on The Morning Call website on November 8, 2016. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

It was 1935.

The country was in the midst of economic depression. The use of electricity in the average American home had only been commonplace for a few decades. Some rural areas had yet to be electrified.

A 15-year-old boy —who later would be my grandfather — would cross the Lehigh River railroad trestle each morning from West Bethlehem on his way to the Bethlehem “Trade School” on the City’s South Side.

His course of study was electrical, a relatively new trade. One day in 11th grade his steelworker father told him he was done with school. He had just bought his older brother a small house-wiring business. The family needed money. It was time to go work with his brother.

My grandfather retired 50 years later after raising six kids, serving his country in World War II, and helping to electrify many of the Lehigh Valley’s largest office buildings, schools, and industrial plants.

He learned a trade that the economy needed. He had skills he could trade for a paycheck, so he was rewarded.

Today’s rapidly evolving world of innovation and technological development is creating a demand for new vocational and technical skills, just as it did during the last century. What’s not as prevalent today is the need for those with just a strong back, good work ethic, and no specific skills. During the post-World War II boom years in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, when America served as the manufacturer to the world, a decent living could be made without a high-level of specific skills.

That part of history is just that, history. Technology now does what people used to do. Manufacturers today are more productive than ever. Output is high but employment is lower, much lower. And that’s how it will remain.

Think about your iPhone. With the tap of a screen you do for yourself what once required the work of dozens of people: travel agents, customer service workers, sales clerks, catalog printers, insurance agents, airline and hotel staff. It’s no different on the shop floor.

Innovation and technology has created a new paradigm in the workforce. Employers don’t create jobs to be good Samaritans. They hire people to do what they need. We’d all serve our children, our community, and our country better if we focused on that reality. Hope is not a strategy. Longing for a past way of life is not a plan.

Low-skilled jobs have been displaced but higher skilled jobs have been created. Vocational and technical training is needed more than ever. There is a demand for skills in mechatronics, precision machining, electronic engineering, software development, automotive technology, machine programming, graphic communications, welding technologies, and building trades like electrical, carpentry, HVAC repair and installation, plumbing, and steam fitting.

Many of these skills can be learned and developed without going to college. The Lehigh Valley has three fantastic vocational and technical high schools: Lehigh-Carbon Technical Career Institute (LCTI) in Schnecksville, Bethlehem Area Vocational Technical-School (BAVTS) in Bethlehem Township, and the Career Institute of Technology (CIT) in Forks Township. They are all supported through our 17 school districts in the region.

Many of these school’s programs are filled to capacity. They are in need of expanded physical space and the development of new curricula. Technology is evolving at a rapid pace. New skills are required. These schools need more support, both from our school districts and from us.

There should be no shame, only pride, in going to “vo-tech.” Many of these students can go right from high school into the workforce and make much more money to start than college graduates. Parents and teachers need to understand this when they counsel today’s 15-year-olds.

Yes, training is not completely interchangeable with education. We study and build knowledge for personal development and not just to work. And the best indicator of long-term earning potential is still a college education. But, many of today’s employers would trade three philosophy majors to find just one highly skilled mechatronics operator. So, next time you see a teenager heading out from home or high school to vo-tech, remember that he or she is doing the hard work to develop the skills that our economy needs. That makes them one of the very smart ones.

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