Despite robust pay, jobs for mechanics and machinists go unfilled

Every morning, Zackery Wysocki dons a helmet and suits up in protective gear for another day of bending metal.

After three years as a welder, the 29-year-old father is pleased with his career choice. He pulls down twice as much as he used to make as a telemarketer, and a grant covered tuition at the academic program that prepared him for his position, meaning he’s not saddled with student debt.

Related: As “middle-skill” jobs go unfilled, Business Development Board launches study

“I like to build stuff and fabricate,” says Wysocki while taking a lunch break from his job as a welder at Bee Access Products in West Palm Beach. “It keeps my mind going.”

Working as a welder in South Florida includes one obvious hardship: Welding shops aren’t air conditioned, and summertime temperatures at Bee Access Products approach 100 degrees, which Wysocki must weather while blanketed in protective gear. Welders cope by staying hydrated and starting shifts before 7 a.m.

Wysocki is the rare worker who has taken heed of the labor market’s shortage of qualified workers for “middle-skill” jobs — positions that don’t require a college degree but still demand mastery of a trade.

Palm Beach County employers say they struggle to find qualified mechanics, machinists and welders, not to mention air conditioning technicians and workers skilled in the construction trades. Considering that workers can collect a decent paycheck in all of those fields, the labor shortage is something of a head scratcher.

Diesel mechanics are in short supply despite paychecks that can top $100,000 a year — although the heat is a hazard in this occupation, too. Truck-repair bays aren’t air conditioned.

“If they’ve got the aptitude, and they don’t mind sweating and getting dirty, there’s money to be made,” says John DeMarco, director of fleet services at Palm Truck Centers, which has repair shops in Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Fort Pierce.

Related: Palm Beach County unemployment falls to 3.6%

Top welders can make $70,000 a year or more, while experienced machinists can pull down $65,000.

“These are good middle-class jobs,” says Rick Reeder, who runs Palm Beach State College’s trade and industry program, which certifies workers in a variety of trades.

Middle-class jobs have been in notoriously short supply since the Great Recession, and the recovery has scattered workers toward the top and bottom of the income ladder. Americans’ feelings of financial insecurity were on full display during the 2016 election, when Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders drew huge crowds by channeling economic angst.

Wysocki, for his part, is just starting out on the welder pay scale, but he said he already makes a comfortable living.

“I know people who went to college who make less than I do,” Wysocki says.

Middle-skill positions offer an antidote to the hollowing out of the work force. But employers lament that few workers seem eager to snap up the abundant opportunities.

“A lot of it is just the mindset that factory work is a dead-end job,” says Aaron Krieger of Value Tool & Engineering in Stuart. “That’s the frame of mind.”

Value Tool is in desperate need of machinists. Krieger says he hires students as soon as they finish Palm Beach State College’s 14-month machinist program.

It’s unclear why so few workers are keen to take their talents to the trades, but Krieger insists that today’s factory jobs aren’t the mind-numbing positions they were in the heyday of American manufacturing, when assembly-line workers performed the same task for years.

“What you have is low-quantity, very difficult parts,” Krieger says. “You have to make the part from scratch for a cost-effective price. You don’t have time to get bored.”

In other words, the work is intellectually stimulating — and it requires technical savvy. When Reeder pitches Palm Beach State College’s programs, he stresses that workers need at least middling math skills.

“This is not your high school shop program,” he says. “These are nationally accredited programs, and there’s a lot of academic rigor.”

Another pitch: All of Palm Beach State College’s industry programs cost a fraction of university tuition. The 18-month diesel technology program is the priciest, at $6,406. The machinist program costs $4,502, and the welding course goes for $4,115.

If a student qualifies for a federal Pell Grant for low-income students, the entire tuition is covered without a loan, Reeder notes. In an era of record student debt, that would seem a compelling pitch, too.

“You hear all the horror stories about guys coming out of college with $200,000 in debt and they can’t find a job,” DeMarco said.

Aside from sweltering conditions, some would-be workers might be dissuaded by modest starting pay. At Palm Truck Centers, the wage starts at $15 an hour.

“I guess to these kids nowadays, that doesn’t seem like a lot of money,” DeMarco said.

But after 90 days, pay can jump to $18 an hour. And in 10 years, a skilled diesel mechanic who runs a team of junior mechanics can expect to make six figures.

DeMarco criticizes what he considers the lagging work ethic of young people, and Wysocki doesn’t mind taking a swipe at his own age group.

“No one wants to put in the initiative,” Wysocki said. “It’s a lazy generation.”

Generation gap or no, the shortage of middle-skill workers means the economy is running at something less than full speed.

“Last year was a very good year for us,” DeMarco said, “but it would have been even better if we had more guys.”

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