In the four and a half years I have been covering the trades, one of the most common refrains I’ve heard echoing through every manufacturing facility, warehouse and service van is that good help — or sometimes any help at all — is hard to find.
According to job outlook data for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters provided by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field will grow 12% between 2014 and 2024, far outpacing most other sectors. BLS estimates nearly 50,000 new jobs will be added to the existing 425,000 during that timeframe. Did I mention that the average annual pay for these jobs is more than $50,000?
Yet, there is still a battle being fought — a battle against the pervasive and baseless mindset that these jobs, these “blue collar” positions, are somehow less honorable than other professions. It’s “horse hockey,” as my 93-year-old grandmother would say. It wasn’t always this way.
Whereas in the past it was honorable to take up your parents’ skilled profession or find someone to take you on as their apprentice, the pendulum has swung so far away from the skilled trades and toward four-plus-year degrees that these good-paying, non-outsourceable skilled positions are seen as options only for those who couldn’t hack it in high school. In the eyes of many, these are still the career options for the bad students, the truants, and those who lack ambition.
My high school guidance counselors in the 90s espoused these views and hailed the many virtues of the four-year degree and the implied success that came with it. I bought into it; most parents did, too. The “shop kids,” as we called the students who chose to spend their time in our high school’s basement learning carpentry, engine repair, and other hands-on skills, were seen as educational pariahs with no real futures. (Interestingly, one of those old classmates now owns his own car repair business; meanwhile, I’m sitting on $30,000 of student debt, which is still much less than many of my peers.)
That is not to say I do not enjoy my profession or regret my education — just that I wish there had been more than one option. And this mindset that four-year degrees are the way to go — that they are somehow the marker for success — is still as prevalent as ever in middle and high schools. It’s disheartening, at least until I look at what is being done to fix it.
In response to the growing skills gap, many of you are taking a proactive approach to recruiting, and you’re starting younger and younger.
I have interviewed many industry contractors and instructors over the past few years, and several have talked about how they are able to attract young adults to the trades. One instructor at a community college said the first thing he did when he was hired was schedule meetings with all the guidance counselors from all the area middle and high schools. I remember him telling me he “would not take no for an answer” and even admitted to making unscheduled in-person visits to the counselors who wouldn’t return his calls.
Many of these individuals make a point to meet frequently with their local guidance counselors. Some have taken these counselors to visit local contractors so they can see firsthand what a career in the trades truly entails. Some attend career days at their local schools, where they speak directly to students and their parents, who are often shocked to learn that their children could receive an education and begin a successful career so quickly. Some contractors and instructors even partner with schools to orchestrate ride-alongs for students interested in the trades.
Of course, closing the skills gap is certainly proving to be a multifaceted, complicated, and industry-wide effort, but it all starts with you. You’re the ones who have the power to open minds, one by one, and affect true change.
So, whose mind will you change today?