USA TODAY: Skilled Trades Employers Fight 'Dirty Jobs' Stereotypes

CARLISLE, Iowa -- Dylan White, Kendel Clark and Chase Oakley each started down the college route before taking a different path — climbing hundreds of feet in the air.

The three studied everything from law enforcement to business to health administration, but they now work for Murphy Tower in Carlisle, Iowa. Each said they were encouraged in high school to go directly to college. Eventually, however, they decided they would rather work than take classes.

Murphy Tower builds and maintains cell and wireless towers throughout Iowa and has just under 50 employees.

Skilled trade employers are fighting against the stigmas of their industry, a problem they say is hampering their ability to meet an increased need for welders, construction workers and other tradesmen. The stereotypes revolve around the idea that the jobs, many of which don't require a four-year college degree, are less valuable than those that do.

State officials often cite a gap in "middle-skilled" jobs, or those that require between an associate degree and bachelor's degree. A 2013 report from Iowa Workforce Development states only 33 percent of Iowa workers have these skills, but 55 percent of Iowa's jobs are considered "middle skilled."

Murphy Tower co-owner Patrick Murphy said students who are leaving high school typically do not consider working at a company like his as a potential career.

"It can be a career, but they just don't know it," Murphy said. "Nobody is telling them that. They're looking at it as if they don't go to college, they maybe failed in some way."

Shelly Estes, Murphy Tower's human resource manager, said the company would like to add another 20 technicians in the next two years to meet demand. She said few to no programs exist that train the skills Murphy Tower needs in its employees, which can make finding qualified candidates difficult.

Coupled with an increasing retired population and the requirement for more specific skills, the perception problem has put an added emphasis on the need for a new generation of tradesmen and women.

"The jobs that are available are available because people don't want them," Mike Rowe, the former "Dirty Jobs" host, told the Register. "Why don't people want them? Because for the last 40 to 50 years, we've done a really good job of marginalizing those jobs."

In 2008, Rowe established mikeroweWORKS, a foundation dedicated to promoting the skilled trades. Rowe spoke with the Register while attending the annual Iowa Association of Business & Industry conference last week, where he was the keynote speaker.

To meet the need for skilled workers, officials from President Barack Obama down to Iowa lawmakers and local economic development leaders have called for new programs to provide proper training.

In northwest Iowa, the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corp. has started a "Manufacturing 101" program for adults. The program is intended to teach individuals the basic manufacturing skills needed for most jobs, such as machine maintenance and safety.

Scott Rettey, a retired high school teacher who is running the program, said the curriculum comes from a survey of local companies on what they needed most.

"There's really a huge statewide push here for (this training)," Rettey said.

Kathy Evert, the president and CEO of the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development Corp., said the region will need about 1,500 new workers during the next four to five years to meet demand from local companies.

She said one way to meet demand and reduce stereotypes against the skilled trade sector is to show educators what it is like to actually work in the industry.

"We've been encouraging school administrators, school faculty, counselors … to get inside some of these manufacturing facilities to help change that perception, because there's still that 1950s perception that 'It's dirty, it's too hard, it's not for me or my kids or my students,'" Evert said.

Programs like "Manufacturing 101" are popping up across the U.S., typically as a collaboration between businesses and local schools and universities.

The Green Hills Area Education Agency in southwest Iowa, for example, is in the preliminary stages of establishing a "career technical education institute."

Green Hills' chief administrator, Lane Plugge, said the institute would focus on preparing students for future careers while providing training local companies say is required.

In addition, Iowa lawmakers passed and the governor recently signed legislation providing $3 million to apprenticeship programs to help offset overhead costs.

Iowa's community colleges have also established new training programs geared toward specific companies.

At the national level, Obama announced earlier this year the creation of several manufacturing institutes that would focus on improving technology and provide training. Iowa's three regents universities are involved in one of those institutes, based in Chicago.

Still, the negative perception remains, which Rowe says is due to a disconnect in the nation's relationship with work.

"Essentially, we turned work into the enemy," he said.

Steven Schneider, a school counselor at Sheboygan South High School in Sheboygan, Wis., said the nation's educators need to re-evaluate the purpose of education to help change that perception.

Instead of putting the emphasis on every student going to college, schools need to show that there are other paths, said Schneider, a former board member of the American School Counselor Association.

"We have an obligation as citizens to support the economy of our nation, and if we have one of our largest primary employment sectors saying, 'We don't have enough people getting trained to get the work done,' then somewhere our understanding of our obligation … has fallen short," Schneider said.

Rowe agreed, saying the solution isn't to pit college against work, but rather to make sure students know there are options.

"The trick is to make sure by the time the kid gets to this point, where he or she is seriously trying to figure out the best path, that they can look at the most options, that they've had time to try them on somehow," he said.