Michigan students discover Professional Trades careers through hands-on experience

The Talent and Economic Development Department of Michigan (Ted) is energizing a statewide dialogue about Michigan’s vast career opportunities in Professional Trades. Michigan will have more than 545,000 high-demand, high-wage Professional Trades career openings to fill through 2026 in fields like information technology, healthcare, manufacturing, construction and automotive.


This is the third installment in a six-part series sponsored by Ted.


Lewis Williams says he was in a "rough spot" before he discovered an opportunity to train for a career at DTE Energy in just three college semesters.


Williams had considered becoming a realtor before he heard about the Power and Trades Pathways Program, a partnership between DTE and Henry Ford College, while he was attending Cody High School in Detroit. After interning with DTE for two summers, he was fascinated to learn how important the company's work was. He enrolled in the Power and Trades Pathways program and took classes at Henry Ford College that included heating and cooling, distribution and blueprint reading. Now 21, he's completing an apprenticeship in the field as a maintenance fitter.


"You're guaranteed a job once you get into the program," he says. "You just have to persevere and take it."

Lewis Williams.

Throughout Michigan, employers and educators are offering programs designed to provide students like Williams the tools they need to succeed in careers in the Professional Trades. In Michigan there will be an estimated 545,000 openings through 2026 in Professional Trades. That’s why the Talent and Economic Development (Ted) Department of Michigan created Going PRO in Michigan, a groundbreaking education and awareness campaign to elevate the perception of Professional Trades and showcase the numerous high-paying, high-demand career options available across the Great Lakes State.


This talent gap was recognized in west Michigan by the Discover Manufacturing Coalition, a group of manufacturers and high schools that partner to provide programming designed to expand the talent pool for manufacturing in the area. Steve Heethuis, vice chair of Discover Manufacturing, says the coalition works to help educators, community partnership organizations and employers work together to get students interested in the many careers manufacturing offers.


"We needed to start advocating on behalf of our industry in West Michigan," Heethuis says.


Cyndi Langlois, associate dean of workforce and talent development at Muskegon Community College, serves on the coalition’s leadership team as a liaison between Muskegon Community College and local companies. She monitors her community's talent needs and then uses internships, apprenticeships or schooling to connect the right students to the right companies.


"Manufacturing jobs offer really good careers, good wages, and a lot of manufacturers are even willing to pay tuition for somebody to go to school," Langlois says. "So how do we let youngsters know about that so they can capitalize on apprenticeships?"


Muskegon Community College helps promote awareness of the Professional Trades among youth by hosting a variety of events that highlight skilled careers. Those events include CAD and welding competitions and a talent pipeline event where local high school students are educated on manufacturing, Muskegon’s local companies and the important roles that products made in Muskegon play in national manufacturing.

A STEM/talent pipeline event at Muskegon Community College.

"Every airplane that you will ever fly in or ever see in the sky has a part made here in Muskegon. We ship bread products all over the United States. We have tanks that we design here in Muskegon that our Army is using in the field," Langlois says. "We really try to work on that 'Muskegon proud' thing and get kids excited about what we do here locally."


Many organizations advocating for careers in Professional Trades must combat the stigma and misperceptions of “dark, dirty and dangerous” careers that surround the field.


Cleveland Sparrow encounters those misperceptions regularly in his work as a certified instructor for manufacturing at Croswell-Lexington Community Schools in Croswell and Madison District Public Schools in Madison Heights. He administers the FANUC Certified Automation Training Program, which provides certified robotics training to high school juniors and seniors in 63 Michigan high schools.

Cleveland Sparrow (right) with a student working with a robot.

Students in the FANUC program learn basic techniques for operating, constructing, and programming robots. After they have learned these basic skills, Sparrow says, they can parlay their skill sets into more advanced training – and, eventually, careers – that FANUC offers.


Sparrow says many students simply don’t know what is involved in skilled careers. Others have a perception that they need to excel in certain subjects like math and science to be able to work in a field like robotics. But Sparrow says that’s not the case.


"As you grow into it, you gain knowledge," he says. "… You don’t have to be proficient at day one; that comes as you become more familiar."

Cleveland Sparrow.

Misperceptions of Professional Trades among students may differ depending on the type of work. Sharon Miller is the Michigan talent architect at Consumers Energy and statewide co-chair of the Michigan Energy Workforce Development Consortium (MEWDC). Miller says the greatest stigma MEWDC faces "might be the lack of perception. The general population doesn’t know about these careers and they’re a genuine lifetime occupation. You can earn six figures right out of the gate."


She also says there is a shortage of women and minorities in energy jobs. Miller says untrue stereotypes may prevent some individuals, particularly women, from getting into the field.


"If anyone has basic physical health and strength, they can do it," she says. "No one was born knowing how to climb a utility pole."


To combat these stigmas and provide students with ways to get into Professional Trades, MEWDC organizes awareness activities like Careers in Energy Week, where a flurry of activity takes place around the state in K-12 schools and colleges to promote energy careers. Thanks to media coverage and an expanding social media presence, more companies and partners have gotten involved in Careers in Energy Week each year since it started in 2015. This year it will take place October 14-18.


Among other programming, MEWDC also creates specific pipeline programs for the energy industry's highest-demand jobs. Line workers are in high demand at Consumers, so MEWDC has partnered with Lansing and Alpena community colleges to create yearlong training programs. Students are screened while they are in the programs and offered jobs upon successful completion. These jobs start at nearly $30 an hour, and the training is tailored to Consumers' needs.


The Power and Trades Pathways program is one of the programs to come out of MEWDC, and Williams couldn't be happier that he discovered it. He says he enjoys being out in the field and meeting customers, and he describes the pay and benefits as "rewarding."


"I love my job and it's a very important job," he says. "It kind of changed the course of my life."


Asked if he has any words of advice for other students considering a career in Professional Trades, Williams doesn’t hesitate.


"I would say most definitely take advantage of it," he says. "... I’m still working towards getting where I want to be, but things have eased up a lot."


To learn more about Professional Trades opportunities in Michigan, visit Going-PRO.com.
All photos by Nick Hagen except Muskegon Community College photo.

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