By Zachariah Bryan
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
These days, if you want to find Sarith Sok, you just have to look up. He’s played a role in building some of Seattle’s biggest projects: the 520 bridge, the Northgate Light Rail Station, high-rise buildings in downtown and, currently, the Sea-Tac International Airport expansion.
Sok is an ironworker, a skilled labor worker who erects the structural framework of buildings. Put another way, he helps make the dreams of architects and engineers turn into a physical reality.
After spending most of his life getting in and out of trouble and working dead-end jobs that paid “bread crumbs,” he’s found a career that pays. He can support his family, pay rent, and save up to buy a house. He can even go on vacation — he recently went to Lake Tahoe to ride jet skis.
For Sok, it’s a refreshing change of pace. He first came to Washington as a 2-year-old Cambodian refugee, escaping the genocide of the late 1970s with his parents. He grew up on welfare and in housing authorities and, because of the environment he lived in, he said, he got involved in things he shouldn’t have gotten involved in.
Becoming an ironworker changed everything.
“It made me a better man,” he said. “Made me respect life more.”
It’s a good job, too, he said. He enjoys the camaraderie and the hard work. And what’s more, he didn’t need a four-year degree to get here.
A report published last year by the Washington State Auditor suggested that schools and parents are steering most kids toward bachelor’s degrees, without exploring other opportunities that cost less, result in more pay, and, at least in some cases, may be a better fit.
What’s more, Asian Americans are often underrepresented in these types of jobs. In Washington’s apprenticeship programs, which includes everything from lashes and massage to aerospace manufacturing, Asians account for only 2 percent of participants. Meanwhile, Asians makeup about 9 percent of Washington’s population and are the state’s largest and fastest growing minority group. Nearly every other racial group (save for Hispanic) sees representation proportionate to their share of total state population.
During a time when the economy has recovered and when Seattle is busting at the seams with new construction, this all results in a troubling labor shortage.
Mary Lockman, a college navigator for South Seattle College (SSC)’s Georgetown Campus, which acts as a hub for pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs, said more businesses are asking for workers. It’s not hard for anyone with a good work ethic and an ounce of experience to land a job.
John Lederer, executive dean of career and workforce development at North Seattle College, said community colleges represent a valid and lucrative career option.
“It’s really possible to do very well in terms of earnings without a bachelor’s degree, if you’re smart about it,” he said.
He pointed to a study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce as proof.
According to the study, called “The Five Rules of the College and Career Game,” 28 percent of associate’s degree holders and many workers with one-year certificates earn more than the average bachelor’s degree holder.
An associates in the STEM fields or health care can earn more money than a bachelor’s degree in the arts ($52,000-$60,000 versus $50,000), according to the study. Even a certificate in the STEM fields or a typical certificate for a blue collar job averages between $45,000 and $48,000.
“It is possible to identify where an associate’s degree is worth more than a bachelor’s degree, if it’s the right field,” Lederer said.
These degrees and certificates can also be more likely to lead directly to jobs than many bachelor’s degrees, too. That’s because it’s often left up to Washington’s network of community colleges to respond to local labor demands and providing certificate and degree programs to bolster the workforce. This includes typical programs for health care, technology, and manufacturing, but local colleges often tackle more specific demands.
“The colleges are the conduit between our community and the employer market,” said Veronica Wade, SSC’s executive dean in career and workforce development.
For example, North Seattle College created a program for property management. With all of the buildings being built in Seattle, there aren’t enough property managers to look after them, Lederer said. And there aren’t any programs along the entire West Coast to help fill that demand.
“We saw that as an easy opportunity to fill a void that’s pretty serious,” Lederer said.
Similarly, Seattle Central College (SCC) worked with Kaiser Permanente to create a new program to combat a “huge shortage” of medical assistants, said Chris Sullivan, SCC’s executive dean for career and workforce development.
“We can’t train enough MAs to fill the gap,” he said.
At South Seattle College, there’s a range of programs with specific applications, like culinary arts, automotive technology, aviation maintenance, and wine studies.
On that last one, Wade laughs. “I think that’s something that surprises people, to get training in something like wine. It breaks some stereotypes on what’s available, what we do,” she said. (North Seattle’s watchmaking institute is another example of this.)
SSC also has a public-private partnership with the maritime industry that resulted in a six-month-long shipyard welding program. Wade said one company realized that much of its workforce is starting to age out and needed to work toward bringing in a younger crop of workers.
It’s a trend that’s creating job opportunities across a variety of fields. Carrie McNally, a recruiter for the Seattle Police Department (SPD), said SPD is expected to recruit about 100 people per year for the next three years.
That’s due to growing demands from an aging population and because 30 percent of the police force is currently eligible to retire.
“In my career, that’s the most hiring I’ve ever seen,” she said.
And, like other fields, SPD doesn’t require much experience. Prospective officers just need to have a good work history, a clean record, and to be 21 years old by the end of the police academy.
“We feel confident we can teach them how to be good police officers,” McNally said.
Seattle Community Colleges are working on new ways to communicate with prospective students that there are opportunities. Earlier this year, they launched a new website called “College to Career,” a gathering spot for all of the programs available across all three campuses, divided by interest. Each program description includes what jobs it helps prepare people for, how much it will cost, and how long it will take.
“It’s good for parents and for potential students who just want to figure out, ‘What are my options?’” Lederer said.
The state auditor report concluded that there’s a severe lack of awareness among high school students about education and career paths beyond four-year universities, even as employers are reporting that many jobs requiring less education are going unfilled.
Joe Hannan, the training coordinator for Local 528 Cement Masons and Plasters, said in the three years he’s been at his job, he has yet to see a single high school student express interest in joining his apprenticeship program. This, despite going to “tons of job fairs” and showing students around the apprenticeship grounds down in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle.
Hannan said he doesn’t ask for much. He doesn’t require prior experience in the field. He’s had apprentices who have never seen cement poured in their life.
“As long as they got a good attitude, show up every day,” people can work in the concrete business, he said.
“This is the same qualifications as McDonald’s,” said Lockman, the college navigator from SSC, which acts as a hub for several local apprenticeship programs, including the masons union.
Hannan agreed. “We get a lot of McDonald’s on our resumes,” he said. “We don’t need prior experience. You just need to show interest.”
But when it comes to why recent high school graduates aren’t expressing interest, he can only shrug. Maybe they’re not ready for a full-time career, he said.
Lockman said it goes deeper than that, though.
“For 13 years, they’re being directed to academics,” she said. “And when you say, hey! Let’s do something different” – well, it doesn’t work.
Hannan said the idea of working skilled labor jobs should be planted at least by junior high.
The audit recommended that schools should improve career guidance given to students in the 7th or 8th grade, concluding that “when students are given better upfront information about career opportunities, and an understanding of local, regional, and state labor market conditions, they can make more informed educational choices that help them prepare for entering the job market.”
The audit also recommended more counselors and specialized courses at high schools that help students explore career opportunities that don’t require four-year degrees.
If more is done to increase awareness about these well-paying jobs, and the limited education needed to get them, maybe, eventually, there will be more people like Sok.
As an ironworker, Sok has the privilege of being able to point to physical proof of his success. He said when he drives around with his friends in downtown, he’s able to tell them, “Oh, I worked on that, I worked on that.”
He said his favorite project was a high-rise he helped build in downtown, “Knowing I had my hands adding to the Seattle skyline.”
Zachariah can be reached at email@example.com.
Certificates and two-year degree pathways at Edmonds Community College
Become a construction manager or building inspector. The job market is strong for both career paths, especially with the increasing complexity of today’s construction projects.
Are you creative? Do you like to cook? Employers large and small are actively recruiting career-oriented, trained employees in the fast-growing field of culinary arts. Opportunities exist in many diverse areas, including hotels, restaurants, catering, and corporate food services.
The program focuses on the scientific foundation and creative and artistic aspects of horticulture, offering a holistic approach to horticulture education that addresses intellectual, practical, and artistic development. Learn about landscape management, design, and restoration; and nursery and greenhouse production.
Washington Aerospace Training and Research (WATR)
WATR Center offers certificate programs that are designed to get students trained and ready for high-paying jobs in the shortest possible amount of time. Certificates include: Manufacturing Assembly Mechanic, Electrical Assembly Mechanic, Quality Assurance, Tooling, and Composites.
For more information, visit edcc.edu/schedule.
Registration is open for fall quarter. Classes begin Sept. 17.