OSKALOOSA — The COVID-19 pandemic has left many Americans unemployed and wondering what is next once the threat of the disease has diminished. But not all career fields have been impacted, a local professor said.
The unemployment rate for Iowa alone almost tripled in a month’s time. Iowa’s unemployment rate for the month of May has yet to be determined. However, Iowa Workforce Development’s website shows the unemployment rate for the state jumped from 3.6 percent in March to 10.7 percent in April.
Some locals argue that trade jobs, or jobs for skilled workers, have been virtually unaffected by today’s crisis. One reason may be that many manufacturing companies, like Oskaloosa Engineering & Manufacturing, have adapted to meet the demands of healthcare facilities by producing medical supplies. The company was awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to manufacture components for medical supplies in April.
According to Indian Hills Community College Professor of Machine Technology Marty Roberts, people who have taken up trade jobs as their chosen career path have not stopped working as their jobs are essential.
“When I look at society and I see what’s going on, I see a lot of people at home, not doing anything,” he said. “All of my graduates, all of my students who were out working in industry, guess what? They’re working. They are deemed critical because the machines must keep moving, the semis need to keep going down the road, the tractors need to keep going across the fields. My students are the ones who are making the parts for the semis, they’re making the parts for the tractors, they’re fabricating repair items. Honestly, it’s been business as usual for all of my graduates. My students are still putting food on the table for their families.”
Growing up, many millennials were taught that going to college and getting a four-year degree was what they had to do to succeed or live comfortably. Oskaloosa City Councilman Tom Walling, who said that way of thinking is now a thing of the past as school systems are now promoting trade programs for students to transition into once they graduate high school.
“It’s gotten much better,” he said. “For a long time the public school system only promoted just going to college, but that has shifted in the last, I’ll say five to six years. They are promoting trade programs to high school students. We have a great trade program here in Oskaloosa.”
Students at Oskaloosa High School, as well as the students at Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont High School, were given the opportunity to participate in a registered apprenticeship program. The apprenticeship would allow participating students to get on-the-job training, which includes education and industry or college issued credentials while earning a paycheck. Unfortunately, students were not able to complete the program due to the pandemic.
Oskaloosa High School Work Coordinator Kristin Bandy said she is, however, looking forward to working with local businesses in the fall to try and make the program work.
Walling’s former employer, Cunningham, Inc., has an apprenticeship program for students to participate in. Human Resources Manager Betsy Miller said students participating in the program learn everything from core mathematics to trade knowledge and the history of the trade. Students will also get hands-on experience and it’s all taught by journeymen employed by the company.
Roberts said knowing all the opportunities that the technical route offers, it’s hard for him to encourage students to seek a four-year degree from universities
“Whether it’s electricians, or welders, or machinists, or whatever there’s definitely lots of opportunity,” he said. “And you know, some larger manufacturers in southeast Iowa like Vermeer and Pella Windows offer tuition assistance once you start working and show that you are going to spend some time with the facility.”
Because the pay for skilled workers is so competitive and the programs generally don’t take long to complete, some people decide to earn a trade skill first and use their earnings to help pay for their bachelor’s degree.
As we continue to progress toward an unrestricted way of life again, workforces are predicting that skilled workers will be even more in demand as needs will be higher.
For more information about Cunningham Inc. apprenticeship program, contact Betsy Miller at 641-673-8479. More information about the Indian Hills Community College’s CNC Machine Technology program can be found at http://www.indianhills.edu/academics/tech/machinetech.php.