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Rethinking The Trades

Rethinking The Trades

Jobs in the trades are in hot demand as large employers and small business owners compete for top talent. In Topeka, an expansive network of entities is heightening efforts to develop workforce skill sets and position the capital city for future growth. Whether it’s a significant bump in an individual’s wages or a business choosing to locate or expand here, technical education plays a pivotal role in Topeka’s prosperity.

Clark Coco, dean of Washburn Tech, has spent the past seven years helping students find their passion and collaborating with instructors, local employers and national manufacturers to educate the public about the earning power of technical careers and elevate trade-path prestige.

The former basketball coach knew in grade school that he wanted to be an educator who helped others find their purpose.

“It’s a gift to work, to be able to go out and help people,” Coco said. “And you need to be proud of what you do so you don’t play second chair to anyone. No apologies. When you show up to fix someone’s furnace when it’s 4 degrees outside, that customer wants you to be the best.”

Coco worked with faculty to implement a dress code of uniform shirts color-coded by specialty to instill professionalism in students pursuing any one of the 38 programs offered. The leadership team put plans in place to pump up programs and partnerships and beautify the campus, from painting buildings and pulling weeds along sidewalks to replacing projection units and other classroom equipment. In 2014, Coco initiated the nation’s first signing day for technical careers, bringing kids, proud parents, corporate partners and even the governor together to celebrate and honor their decision.

The dean and others worked to fulfill requirements for NC3 membership, gaining access to high- profile partners like Chrysler and CASE. Faculty members continue to prepare students to compete in nationwide SkillsUSA and other competitions and strengthen outreach efforts with local employers to create customized training and identify new opportunities.

“Our faculty and leadership are phenomenal, and we have exceptional relationships with our local workforce partners,” said Coco, who will retire this summer. “It’s a collaborative partnership, not just tech teaching and employers hiring.”

And employers are hiring. With low unemployment and steep competition for talent, technical certifications are a golden ticket.

“I’ve told kids that if they showed up in my office drug free with a reputation for having a good attitude, a good work ethic and the ability to conduct themselves appropriately, then I could take their resume at 9 a.m. and get them a job by 5 p.m.,” he said. “How many other fields can say the same?

Access to a well-trained workforce is a key factor in the selection criteria companies consider when determining whether to relocate or expand in a community.

“One of the biggest costs of doing business is labor,” said Molly Howey, senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Topeka Partnership. “It’s a recruiting asset when companies know they won’t have to invest in a lot of training to get a new workforce up to speed, especially in a tight labor market.”

Howey said Washburn Tech’s ability to not only prepare new students for a trade career path but to also supply ongoing training for experienced employees at global companies like Goodyear and Mars is another benefit for Topeka in attracting new businesses and enhancing ties with existing employers.

“The ability to be flexible with our training offerings and to sit down with a company and develop a comprehensive program specific to their processes is a critical advantage,” she said. “It’s one of the best competitive tools we have.”

Barbara Stapleton, vice president of business retention and talent initiatives at GO Topeka, said nearly 10,000 people in Shawnee County ages 18 to 64 don’t have a high school diploma or GED equivalent.

Local school districts, Washburn Tech and other entities are working to reverse these numbers by providing opportunities for students to earn “stackable credentials” like a technical certification while still in high school so they can make $15 to $20 an hour right after graduation.

“And if they choose to pursue an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, they can greatly reduce their debt while doing so,” Stapleton said.

Stapleton is involved with the new Washburn Tech East location, which began classes Jan. 7 with 87 students working toward certifications for building trades, health care positions or commercial truck driving licenses. Adult education classes are also offered to help individuals earn GEDs.

Lalo Munoz, executive director of El Centro Topeka, an agency that provides services to immigrants, serves as chair of the Washburn Tech East Task Force.

“There are often multiple issues and obstacles, including flexibility and funding, that may prevent someone from pursuing a GED, but not having one keeps people out of the workforce,” he said. “But getting that GED is just the first great milestone in the process. After that, they can begin to think about a trade that can give them greater skills and higher income to take them further.”

In partnership with Washburn Tech, the Greater Topeka Partnership, faith organizations, elected officials and other leaders, Munoz has been involved in multiple events with area neighborhoods, from community center presentations and cookouts to door-to-door conversations, to make people aware of advancement opportunities available close by.

“It can be scary to think about going back to school, but Washburn Tech and Washburn Tech East will bend over backward to meet people where they are and help them succeed, changing the trajectory of their lives and the community as a whole.”

Skilled trades workers are in high demand across the country. An aging workforce combined with fewer young people choosing to enter the trades fields has resulted in a shortage of electricians, carpenters, welders, HVAC specialists and even pilots that many companies desperately need to operate their businesses.

HME, Inc
Jon Haas, president of HME, oversees a team of 400 employees who build steel fabrications for the construction market, including athletic facilities, high rise buildings, airplane hangars, hospitals and water treatment facilities all over the world. He relies on a myriad of trades and professions to get the job done in the manufacturing facilities and on construction sites.

An engineer himself, Haas thinks more young people contemplating careers should consider technical training. He asked one of his team members to create a spreadsheet showing the long-term financial cash flow that can be had from pursing a technical track instead of a traditional college path. The spreadsheet can be downloaded from HME’s website, HMEInc.net/Careers.

Haas said the notion that young people should obtain a college degree to have a successful career is outdated because technical professions have become just as valuable in the marketplace.

“It’s simple supply and demand,” he said. “If you pursue a career with high supply and low demand, you’ll struggle. Tech careers, though, have short supply and high demand. It doesn’t cost as much as a college degree and you can get it faster and maybe even get farther down the road to realizing your financial goals.”

Haas said people may have shied away from pursuing technical careers in the past because of perceptions of low pay and undesirable working conditions, but today’s environments have computer-controlled machines performing repetitive tasks and are heavily regulated by OSHA to ensure safety.

Haas said the salaries HME pays to technical employees are comparable to those paid to traditional college graduates, the latter of which “are finding they like being able to move around or work with their hands in the field instead of sitting in front of a computer all day.”


Greg DeBacker leads DeBacker Inc., a four-generation heating and air conditioning company founded by his grandfather in 1949.  started working in the business part time as a Seaman High School student in the 1970s and became hooked on the technical components of the tasks and the hero aspect of customer interactions.

“Our business operates in the extremes—zero degrees or 100 degrees,” he said. “We help people in dire times of need.”

Busy times may require employees, including DeBacker’s son, Dan, to work 60 to 80 hours a week. When moderate temperatures slow demand, DeBacker still finds something for crews to do so they don’t lose pay, a family philosophy based on “treating people well.”

Thanks to Wichita Technical Institute and Washburn Tech turning out top-notch labor, he said he’s been fortunate to hire “great, young talent.”

But aside from proficiency, DeBacker also looks for drive and the ability to deal well with people.

“Whenever I hire someone, I ask if they own their own tools, if they change their own oil or if they fixed their bikes when they broke when they were kids, because I want someone who loves the mechanics of the job,” he said. “If someone spent a lot of time playing video games, then this field may not be a good fit.”

Even though DeBacker has seen heating and air conditioning equipment evolve into high-tech units, physics and math still remains at the forefront of any technical solution. In addition, DeBacker emphasizes that abilities to write well and relate to people are just as important, advice he remembers from his Washburn University chemistry professor, Dr. Sheldon Cohen.

“Our technicians might visit eight or more houses a day, and each one is like a little museum reflecting the owner’s interests and personality,” said DeBacker. “Some owners want to visit with us while we work or have us serve as a psychologist and listen to a problem they’re having. Others just want us to fix the unit as fast as we can and leave. You have to really like engaging with people and respecting their preferences to do this job well.”


As a teen growing up in the Oakland area, Rick Kendall worked for the plumbing company his grandfather started. At 18, he became a carpenter’s apprentice, serving in supervisory positions with other contractors before deciding at age 34 to launch Kendall Construction with his wife, Sheri.

Today, the commercial construction company employs 35 people.

Kendall, who serves on the Kansas Building Trades Fund board of directors, said that the average age
of new participants in the profession is 37, up considerably from 21 when he started.

“People are often making career changes in their 30s to join the profession, but the work takes a physical toll, so most carpenters retire in their late 50s,” he said. “If you’re starting in your late 30s, you’re going to have a shorter career.”

Another notable trend is the shortened amount of experience required for superintendents overseeing construction jobs. Whereas the standard used to be 10 years or more, now Kendall said he often sees ads requesting just 3 to 5 years of supervisory experience.

Kendall welcomes the idea of people entering trades later in life, but hopes young people with an aptitude for math and a strong work ethic will consider carpentry as an option early on, especially with average wages of $25 an hour.

“We work at plants like Mars, Bimbo Bakeries and the Target Distribution Center, and we’re also competing
with them for talent,” he said. “These companies all want us to have the same high qualifications as their own employees, people who are not only competent but also safety conscious, reliable and drug free.”

At 59, Kendall is contemplating his own retirement and in a couple of years will turn over his company to Dave Cooper, a 20-year employee and a
partner for four years.

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When thinking about a career in the trades, most people don’t even consider the idea of becoming a pilot. However, similar to those individuals who choose to become electricians and plumbers, specialized training that you can’t get in college is required.

A third-generation pilot, Brooks Pettit founded Vaerus Aviation in 2007. His grandfather flew planes during World War II. His father owned a local manufacturing company and bought and sold planes as a means to travel around the country for business more quickly.

“I learned at an early age, from my dad’s example, the value an aviation company can provide to help businesses be more efficient,” he said. “Just like a manufacturer might purchase a new laser cutting table to boost productivity, today many companies realize that an airplane investment can do the same thing by facilitating faster face-to-face communication.”

Pettit said flying offers a great quality of life for people who don’t want to spend eight hours a day behind a desk.

“We get to participate in a lot of cool events and travel to neat corners of the continent, but the best part
is developing relationships with the people we fly frequently,” he said.

Vaerus Aviation pilots typically fly 12 to 18 days a month, staying over in various locations about six nights
a month. When they are not flying, they are overseeing other operational aspects of the business, such as client relationships or safety compliance.

Prospective pilots can complete a traditional aviation program or fulfill requirements at a local airport, as Pettit did, completing his first solo flight at 7 a.m. on his 16th birthday at Billard Airport.

Once licensure and flight requirements are met, individuals can earn their commercial, multi-engine rating and pursue an entry-level position to start building experience. Pettit hires pilots who have had at least two jobs before joining Vaerus Aviation to fly the company’s 11 planes.

“There’s never been a better time for someone contemplating being a pilot to pursue it,” he said. “Baby boomers are retiring in large numbers, leaving a vacuum of experience.”


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