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Can credit unions help narrow the skilled trades gap?

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Every year, credit unions across the country put millions of dollars toward helping graduating students pursue secondary education after high school. The bulk of that goes toward funding scholarships for four-year colleges, and only a fraction helps students pay for skilled trades and vocational training.

A small number of credit unions have begun altering their offerings to better reflect the realities of the American workforce. Fields such as construction, manufacturing and other skilled trades consistently need workers, and many employers across the country are struggling to fill those jobs.

Many sources interviewed for this story noted the irony in credit unions not more widely promoting programs to boost skilled trades. The movement’s roots, after all, are in supporting middle class, blue-collar workers who struggled to find financial services through traditional avenues. While many of today’s credit unions have expanded to serve wide fields of membership, most credit unions’ roots are in serving particular sponsor groups, many of them in fields such as health care, manufacturing, automotive and more.

Among those institutions shifting their focus is Community Choice Credit Union in Farmington Hills, Mich., which has reworked its scholarship program to provide additional opportunities for those seeking vocational training after high school. While the credit union is still offering the same $100,000 scholarship pot, this year the funding has been tweaked to allocate $25,000 toward those entering skilled trades.

Fifteen $5,000 scholarships are available for students pursuing traditional two- or four-year college programs, while 10 awards of $2,500 each have been earmarked for vocational education.

When Community Choice began its scholarship program in 2008, said Jeremy Cybulski, community engagement manager, the Great Recession was in full swing and the state was in the middle of a brain drain, with many graduates and qualified workers leaving Michigan for opportunities elsewhere. With that in mind, the Michigan Credit Union Foundation in 2013 worked with then-Governor Rick Snyder’s office to craft a skilled trades guide to help credit unions promote in-demand jobs in an attempt to help keep young people in the state rather than leaving for opportunities elsewhere.

Community Choice was aware of that guide but did not consult it or work directly with the foundation on its program. The credit union has been reaching out to area schools, manufacturers and other local groups to help promote its scholarship offerings.

Nearby, Michigan Schools and Government Credit Union is offering a similar program. This is only the second year it has been available, with a pair of $2,500 scholarships available for students pursuing skilled trade certifications in Oakland, Wayne or Macomb Counties.

“We saw a need and reacted to it,” said Ann Jones, VP of marketing and business development. “We’ve been offering scholarships since 2005 and my guess is at that point Michigan had not come to the point we are now, where there’s a growing need but a lot of retirement has now made that gap bigger.”

‘Not the only way’ to achieve the American Dream

A four-year degree is one way to achieve the American Dream, “but it’s not the only way,” said Brett Malvern, founder of Bridging America’s Gap a nonprofit association focused on expanding vocational opportunities and training for young people and closing the skilled trades gap.

According to Malvern, most assistance for skilled trades programs and technical certifications comes not from financial institutions but from businesses themselves providing additional opportunities for their employees. So what accounts for the slow growth in boosting these programs? Increasing awareness of the skilled trades gap is one factor, but Malvern also pointed to the White House.

These initiatives had some support during the George W. Bush administration – where Malvern was a special advisor to the Department of Labor – but got little attention during the Obama era, he said. Since President Trump’s election, however, a greater emphasis has been placed on skilled trades, he continued, including realigning the priorities at the Department of Labor and a push from Education Secretary Betsy Devos.

This will be the third year the Dakotas Credit Union Foundation has included a vocational component in its scholarship offerings. The foundation offers 20 scholarships for $500 each – 10 for each state – to students pursuing traditional college education or certifications.

Demand for the scholarships is high – last year more than 200 students applied from across the two states. With a number of vocational and technical schools across the region, said Lori Welder, executive director of the foundation, a number of students do apply specifically for assistance with skilled trade certifications – possibly, she said, in part because of the high focus on energy and gas across the region.

Despite that, Welder said she is unaware of any credit unions in the state that offer scholarships specifically for vocational training. “There may be some, but they don’t draw attention to it,” she said.

Welder indicated that’s an area more credit unions in the state – and the country – could focus on.

“When you’re talking about different regions, of course there’s going to be different sectors within each region that are more prominent; North and South Dakota obviously have agriculture and oil and gas, those kinds of trades,” she said. “It’s baffling to me that you wouldn’t put some emphasis and encourage those students to pursue further education.”

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