Whether we are trying to make America “Stronger Together” or “Make America Great Again,” there exists a national catastrophe that requires nothing short of a national cultural pivot, something akin to Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” or Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” in which a national crisis required a transformational shift in national priorities to protect the health and safety of the American people. As was true in 1910 and in 1933, we now need a national movement to attract and educate enough skilled tradespeople to fix the declining economic health of the construction trades industry and crumbling infrastructure.
While the narrative is slowly changing from “college readiness” to “career readiness,” we have to overcome what has been a cultural norm in which, “for two or three generations, the focus has been to go to college, get a degree, and, in doing so, ensure a brighter future with more access to employment,” Joshua Wright wrote in “America’s Skilled Trades Dilemma: Shortages Loom As Most-In-Demand Group Of Workers Ages.”
However, according to the Association for Career & Technical Education (ACTE), 85% of the jobs in America do not require a college degree but do require post-high-school training. Tangentially, according to a study from the Brookings Institution, the “volume and frequency of student loans increased significantly” from 2002 to 2012, with loans spiking 77 percent. Meanwhile, the price tag for attending even an in-state, public, four-year college leapt by nearly 32 percent in the same period.
Anthony Carnevale, director and research professor for Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, notes that “we have a debate raging in this country right now over whether universities are supposed to teach for enlightenment or to prepare students for the job market. You still see presidents at some very prestigious universities arguing for the former, not the latter.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that construction is projected to add 790,400 jobs by 2024. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the plumbing, heating, and cooling industries, which PHCC represents, will need 21% more plumbing and HVAC technicians respectively by 2022, and that does not take into account replacing retiring baby boomers. That represents 138,000 jobs available over the next six years.
As NPR reported October 2016, 2.1 trillion gallons of drinking water are lost in the U.S. each year due to decaying, faltering, decrepit infrastructure. A study by the American Water Works Association estimates that it will cost $1 trillion just to repair water pipes. A 2011 study by the Urban Land Institute said another $2 trillion is needed to repair and upgrade America’s network of roads and bridges.
Much of these realities are hard to reconcile, given the dichotomy between the high unemployment rate of college graduates, climbing tuition rates, the high number of available skilled-trade jobs that go unfilled, and the desperate need to fix a decaying infrastructure that threatens the health and safety of our citizens. TV Personality Mike Rowe expressed in an interview with TheBlaze TV’s Andrew Wilkow.
“We’re lending money we don’t have to kids who will never be able to pay it back for jobs that no longer exist,” Rowe said. “That’s crazy, right? That’s what we’ve been doing for the last forty years.”
We need a movement — a cultural shift in which parents, guidance counselors, and others do not view vocational skilled-trades education/apprenticeships as a second option to going to college. With the right policy reforms and resetting national priorities, skilled- trade education can lead to additional education and career advancement.
The DOL reported on Sept. 21, 2016, that: “Today, 91 percent of apprentices remain employed after completing their programs, with average annual starting wages above $50,000. The return on investment for employers is substantial, as studies indicate that for every dollar spent on apprenticeship, employers receive average of $1.47 return in increased productivity.”
We need to get back to the time when youths achieved the status of craft workers and became important members of society. We need to reestablish the vocational education that was dismantled across much of the country. We need to achieve greater diversity within the skilled-trades industries to include more women, minorities, and at-risk youths who are all seeking that same level of importance and respect applied to their contribution to society.
We must overcome stereotypes and understand that, as Rowe pointed out: “Our civilization is held together by people who keep the lights on, pipe connected, and who keep it warm in the winter and cold in the summer. … Our relationship with these people is critical, and that part of our workforce is fundamental to society.”