By Bill Hudson

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — For decades it has been the mainstream mantra hammered into the heads of our young people: High school graduates were told they had to pursue a college degree if they wanted to get ahead.

“Parents say college ready, we’re going to get you college ready,” said Skylar Werde.

He says the stigma attached to blue collar work further devalued skilled trades jobs. It’s also left millions of students and their families saddled with college debt.

“What we’re trying to do is change the conversation that, you know what, you can get a high-paying, value-driven job very easily today and not have that debt,” Werde said.

The 2008 recession did further damage by forcing large numbers of skilled workers to change careers.

Now, employers like Jaci Dukowitz can’t find enough skilled machinists for her Monticello machine shop. The company has resorted to starting its own summer apprentice program aimed at high school students.

“Our main issue now is talent,” Dukowitz said. “We need more bodies in our business immediately and the sooner the better. It is one of our main challenges.”

Part of the problem is perception: Many young people think blue collar employment is dirty, dangerous and a road to nowhere.

Ryan Ponthan, a business representative with the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, hopes to change that.

“Right now, an apprentice carpenter starting out is going to make $18 an hour. And once they see their check, the benefit package will put them at over $30 an hour,” he said.

He’s getting further guidance and ideas at the Trades Gap Summit hosted by Bridgeworks. It’s where industry leaders sought ways to make skilled work more appealing to high school graduates and the younger generations.

“Dirty, dark and dingy is no more,” Dukowitz said. “This is high tech, computer-based, STEM-focused.”

That is the golden promise for blue collar jobs.

In addition, Bridgeworks, along with industry sponsors, will offer $100,000 in scholarships for women interested in pursuing vocational training at Dunwoody and Hennepin Technical College.

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