The trades industry is suffering from a simple staffing dilemma: As workers age out, not enough new ones are replacing them to keep up with demand. But a new, local program is attempting to alleviate this issue by redirecting disengaged youth — those who are currently disconnected from education and employment — into the trades.

Palmer Pathways is in its inaugural year of providing a guided route to apprenticeships, technical school, or employment. The 10-week career training course — kicking off in March — is eligible for people of color between the ages of 16 and 24, aiming not only to introduce more young people to the trades but also increase access to a more diverse population.

Palmer Pathways is a division of Palmer Scholars, a Pierce County-based organization dedicated to supporting underrepresented students through college since 1983. This year, Palmer Scholars developed Palmer Pathways in partnership with WorkForce Central to expand its services to career and technical training.

WorkForce Central, a workforce development system serving Pierce County, found that 15,300 young adults in the county are lacking gainful employment and aren’t currently enrolled in school. The organization has set a goal to halve that number by 2025. In an effort to stimulate that population into a sector with significant projected job openings, WorkForce Central issued a contract to Palmer Scholars, which has demonstrated successful outcomes for its participants, to develop and operate the new initiative, Palmer Pathways.

Executive Director Jonathan Jackson oversees both Palmer Pathways and the legacy program, Palmer Scholars, which offers scholarship assistance and wrap-around support to students pursuing a four-year degree. He said the new program helps young people achieve success outside of the standard, college-going culture.

“Students often think they have to go to college, but that’s not the path for everyone,” Jackson said. He added that many of the individuals the program aims to serve aren’t aware of other options that exist for them. “For first-generation professionals, the cognitive landscape of what they can be is limited. Our goal is to inform them of other career opportunities,” Jackson continued.

This is where mentors come into play. 

One of the things that sets Palmer Pathways apart from other career-training programs is its dedication to mentorship. The organization pairs every participant with a mentor to offer guidance; access to a professional network; and, ideally, knowledge of the career field the participant finds interesting.

They act as a surrogate uncle, friend, or simply a resource to expose mentees to different career trajectories and assist them in the exploration of those options.

Tom Glenn has been a mentor with the legacy program for the past five years. Glenn is a registered nurse who recently was paired with his second mentee. He was a sounding board for his first mentee throughout her four years of college, offering insight and expertise as she navigated her way through those formative years. She is on track to graduate in May, Glenn said. Now, he’s working with a new student interested in going into nursing, like him.

“You’re helping a young person make decisions that will launch them into the rest of their life. You have the opportunity to teach them not just career choices, but value choices — ethical choices,” Glenn said of his experience. “I would certainly recommend it to anybody who is interested in making the world a better place in a small way.”

Glenn has a wealth of experience in his field, but the idea of being a mentor still felt daunting when he enlisted for the opportunity through the Tacoma Sunrise Rotary Club. His fears were unwarranted.

“Anybody can be a mentor,” he said. “You know more than you think you know. I came into the mentoring process really intimidated by the idea that I could be a mentor, and I learned through the process … that I have something to offer.”

With the introduction of the new program, Palmer Pathways is looking to expand its mentor network to the trades or nontraditional occupations. 

Each potential candidate meets with Tiffany Williams, director of scholar support, and goes through mentorship training prior to taking on a student. Williams guides entrants on how to best engage and support young people with special focus on topics like relationship building, racial barriers, impostor syndrome, and more. Williams then matches mentors with mentees based on things like personality, race, gender, sexual orientation, and field of interest/expertise.

“Mentorship is what makes all the difference,” Williams said. She explained that relying on an established member of a professional community bridges access gaps better than merely financial assistance or education. Plus, the social/emotional aspect of having someone they can lean on for support improves retention, confidence, and prolonged success for mentees.

She added that, although the benefits for mentees are evident, being a mentor also is extremely rewarding.

“This is an opportunity to have your own life changed, as well as changing a life in your community,” Williams said. “Mentors are always telling me that they learn as much as their mentee does.”

The trades are a career area projected to require further emphasis to maintain, and this is a great opportunity for electricians, firefighters, plumbers, machinists, and professionals of numerous other fields to support the next generation of workers.

Those interested in becoming a mentor with Palmer Pathways can find out more at palmerscholars.org.