Contributed by Liz O'Sullivan
(Editor's Note: It should be noted that the skilled trades gap has been a long time coming, and this post was originally written by Liz over seven years ago on her blog that you can find here)
I have great respect for people who work hard and are good at their work.
Many people consider hard work and skill to be respect-worthy. However, the same people who respect hard-working and successful doctors, actors, and software engineers, often have little or no respect for hard-working, successful construction tradespeople.
This lack of respect may partially stem from a lack of understanding of what is involved in the work of tradespeople. Sometimes we do a little fix-it work around our own homes and figure that it’s not that hard. We watch tradespeople on TV who make their work look easy, and think, “Oh, well I could do that.” But it actually only looks easy, and that’s because they know what they’re doing!
I suspect that there’s actually a deeper and broader pattern of thinking that’s at work here, and it needs to change, soon.
There is a lack of respect for the construction trades because of the push by schools to get kids to college. Somehow, attaining a 4-year college degree has become the only respected post-high-school option for many kids. It may be the only avenue they hear about from their guidance counselors and parents.
In the Denver Post on February 20, 2011, a guest writer, high school teacher Michael Mazenko wrote:
“…schools keep pushing the college-for-all mentality. The education system should promote the trades and skilled labor as much as it does academics and bachelor’s degrees, and education at all levels should become more experiential and skill-based.”
“This conclusion is supported by the recently released Harvard study that concluded not all kids should go to college – or at least not a four-year university in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. The aptly titled report ‘Pathways to Prosperity’ recommends a new direction for education reform, based on the practical needs of students and the economy.”
Not every teenager really wants to have a career that requires a 4-year-college diploma. But there is pressure from society to go get that college diploma, or else he may be considered to be not smart, or to be an underachiever. Sometimes it works out, and the college student thrives, and ends up taking a career path that did require that college degree. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, the student struggles or hates college, or just wonders why he’s there, AND has student loan debt to deal with after the inevitable drop out of college.
Maybe it made sense to keep pushing oneself through college in the days when a 4-year-college degree guaranteed a job. But today, when a college degree guarantees little more than loads of student loan debt for many, if someone’s not cut out for college, it doesn’t make sense to go.
If alternative education paths, and alternative career paths, were considered to be acceptable, and respectable, by a greater percentage of people in the U.S., we’d have fewer kids dropping out of college, and maybe we’d even have fewer kids dropping out of high school. We’d surely have more, and better-trained, construction tradespeople. They’d get their educations in trade schools or two-year technical college programs, and on the job. While in high school, they’d have a better understanding of how their class subject matter will be used in their careers.
I’m lucky to have known since I was 12 years old what I wanted to do for a living. Some people my age still aren’t sure… If young people are exposed to more options at a young age, options for careers, not just options for more education, they may be as lucky as I was, and be able to live through the rest of their formal educational lives with clear goals in sight.
Another surprising and great piece of information from Michael Mazenko’s piece addresses wages:
“In a study of Florida college graduates, the earnings discrepancy between two-year programs and bachelor degrees is a revelation. Five years out of school, the average trade school or community college graduate makes $47,000 per year compared to bachelor degree holders who average $36,000. School administrators, counselors, and education reformers are being disingenuous if they fail to promote this information to students and parents. By not offering advice on students’ realistic prospects for college degrees and marketable skills, schools are setting up too many kids for failure.”
And, from the Harvard “Pathways to Prosperity” study:
“There will …be a huge number of job openings in so-called blue-collar fields like construction, manufacturing, and natural resources, though many will simply replace retiring baby boomers. These fields will provide nearly 8 million job openings, 2.7 million of which will require a post-secondary credential. In commercial construction, manufacturing, mining and installation, and repair, this kind of post-secondary education—as opposed to a B.A.—is often the ticket to a well-paying and rewarding career.”
These post-secondary credentials mentioned above include 2-year associate’s degrees and occupational certificates. A four-year-college degree is not required for any of these 8 million job openings, and only a high school degree is required for over 5 million of these jobs.
If this pattern of “college-for-all thinking” doesn’t change, these jobs will be tough to fill with qualified, properly trained, people. I see a future with a large percentage of new construction being pretty bad, and a very small percentage of new construction being good, but very expensive. There just won’t be enough skilled tradespeople to go around, so those with the skills will become very expensive and very much in demand. (And how will they have the time to train the skilled tradespeople of the future?)
Well, maybe that’ll be the way to engender the respect that is due… If the U.S. won’t learn the easy way, by reading studies and making some changes in our patterns of thinking, maybe we’ll learn the hard way – by experiencing even higher financial costs of good quality construction, and the less-measurable costs of living with poor quality construction. I’ve seen and lived with both. I’ve seen good work in action, and I’ve seen bad work in action. I highly respect the good work of good tradespeople! Now if we can just get the rest of the U.S. to think this way, we can have a brighter economic future, and a better built environment.
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