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Wanted: Masters in the art of moving goods

“When I grow up, I’m going to work in a warehouse.”

Those probably aren’t the words every parent dreams of hearing their child say. Ask the average person what they think of warehouse-related occupations, and they’re apt to describe them as low-skilled, low-pay, “dirty work” jobs.

Don’t count Shelby Brooks, a senior at Rock Hill’s Northwestern High, among them. She plans to work in a warehouse – and then run one.

She takes supply chain courses at the Applied Technology Center – the Rock Hill school system’s vocational campus – and has already been offered a forklift driver job when she graduates.

She’ll pursue her associate’s degree at York Technical College while holding down a job and mastering the fine art of getting a product from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible.

“I love seeing the beginning product through till it becomes the finished product,” she said. “I’m just fascinated by that.”

Workforce trends suggest Shelby’s making a wise choice.

With the Amazons of the world – and even the Walmarts and Targets – doing more and more business online and shipping products to homes, the industry is adding jobs. A recent study from the Material Handling Institute (MHI), a national trade association representing the logistics, material handling and supply chain industry, said the sector will see 1.4 million new positions by 2018.

That includes everything from forklift drivers and machine operators to business analysts and managers. The median wage might surprise you: $80,000 annually.

At a global competitiveness summit in February, Charlotte business and political leaders said they want the region to become a premier logistics hub, using its airport, intermodal shipping center and convenient interstates to become a global leader in “creating, making and moving things.”

Business leaders understand the importance of the sector. But the folks with the Charlotte-based Material Handling Institute say not everyone else does. Even at a time when underemployment remains a vexing national issue, supply chain companies say they can’t find enough workers to fill their jobs.

MHI officials say the sector’s jobs are wrongly perceived as out-of-step with today’s tech-happy, Internet-driven world.

“It’s not something your (high school) guidance counselor would typically point you to” as a career choice, said Carmen Murphy, an education coordinator with MHI. “But people can take these jobs and support a family.”

MHI hopes a quiet little experiment in Rock Hill will offer a blueprint for getting more young people interested.

At the Rock Hill school system’s Applied Technology Center, Shelby and other students are using MHI-supplied textbooks and curriculum to get a more sophisticated read on the industry.

The school is the first of many MHI hopes to bring under its wing. To put what they’re learning into practice, instructor Dave Finley’s students have turned the school system’s supply warehouse into their learning lab.

One recent afternoon, students scurried around the warehouse, sorting, packing and shipping books for a charity called First Book, which distributes books to needy children.

One teen in a baseball cap drove a forklift, taking shrink-wrapped pallets of books down off a shelf. Shelby, a student supervisor, stood alongside, telling him where to put them. Others prepared them for loading onto a UPS trailer parked at the loading dock.

“This is just one piece of the supply chain industry. This is just the beginning,” Donald Gillman, director of the Applied Technology Center, said as he watched. “But once they understand this level, that’s when they can look at management and increased wages.”

The warehouse, logistics and supply chain sector isn’t the only one increasingly alarmed about finding qualified workers.

A 2013 Georgetown University study said the nation will create 55 million job openings by 2020, but will come up 5 million trained and qualified workers short of filling them.

Such concerns spurred Charlotte business and education leaders to hold a summit last week featuring Harvard University education professor and workforce development expert Bob Schwartz.

According to slides in Schwartz’s presentation, 65 percent of all jobs won’t require a bachelor’s degree by 2020. One slide used a term I hadn’t heard before – the “middle skills gap” – in pinpointing the problem.

“Middle skills” jobs are those requiring some training and technical knowledge, but not a full-fledged four-year college degree. Think respiratory therapists, electrical technicians or supply chain management, the type of jobs you might typically get training for via community college.

Good jobs are out there. Study after study shows we just aren’t matching the workforce to the need.

No one needs to tell Finley.

He said many adults wouldn’t be able to compete for supply chain jobs against students graduating from his school’s four-unit program.

“They can’t drive a forklift,” he said. “They don’t have the sense of precision and accuracy (in doing a job). And employers now want you walking in off the street with those skills.”

Eric Frazier writes about development, jobs and the economy. Got a story tip? Contact him at 704-358-5145, or @Ericfraz on Twitter.