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Let’s Teach Our Young People The Value of a Career in the Trades

By Julie Anderson

It’s a question you’re asked throughout your childhood.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

This timeless question has taken on greater urgency for high school seniors (and juniors) who have recently returned for their school year as they start to make decisions about their futures. And in many cases for these students, the response is still a confused “I don’t know.”

This uncertainty often is addressed with just a single, broad-brush solution. More times than not, the first (and sometimes only) path that is presented is that of a college education. While college is certainly the correct path for some students and their future goals, it is too often presented as a “one size fits all” and neglects other terrific career options.

One of the most lucrative and deep-rooted careers can be found in the skilled trades.  A skilled trade job is any occupation typically requiring specialized skills learned through advanced training, rather than a four-year college or university.  The trades are a broad category which exist within almost every industry, but where we are seeing the biggest need today is skilled labor. Careers in electrical, plumbing, HVAC, carpentry and general construction all require workers to have specialized training, or a learned skill set to perform the work, and are in high demand across the country. 

The current and growing labor shortage is going to affect us all unless we advocate for and promote these important jobs to the next generation of workers.  We need to help them understand the importance and value of skilled trade careers, while creating an environment where we celebrate the choice of a career without a college degree with equal passion as we do for those who pursue a college education.

Over the past six years as a leader in the recruitment industry, I have worked in close proximity to the trades in telecommunications, HVAC, plumbing and electrical.  I am continually impressed with the work ethic and passion of the candidates I interview.  What I have found are hard-working men and women in an industry they love, earning a solid income. Most importantly, they find themselves without the choking financial burden of college tuition debt.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers some evidence of the need and strong future for careers in the trades. Based on projected annual openings through 2029, plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians ranked #4, #6 and #8, respectively, out of the top 10 skilled labor job growth occupations, with an estimated 203,000 new jobs expected in those three fields alone. 

It’s not just about job growth, though. These jobs also have amazing earnings potential, job security, career growth and impact:

  • The median incomes of an electrician, plumber and HVAC technician range from nearly $49,000 to more than $56,000. Those are solid base salaries, but most of these jobs also offer commissions and bonuses providing income over six figures for some positions.
  • The skilled trades industry promotes heavily from within, even at the leadership level.  It is not uncommon for many early career technicians to grow to become entrepreneurs opening and owning their own businesses after 5 or 10 years.
  • During 2020, these skilled laborers were the essential workers, the unsung heroes of our country, as we learned just how vital these people and their skills are to society continuing to function in the face of great adversity.

To make educated decisions about their future, young people need to know about their options for careers in the skilled trades, as well as an honest conversation about the total cost of a four-year degree.  On average, cost of tuition, books and housing runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars with average loan debt of more than $30,000. Making matters worse, salaries are not increasing to compensate for the debt most students are carrying well into their 30s. 

Conversely, learning many skilled trades can be nearly free (by starting as an apprentice) or are very low cost with a trade school education of 1-2 years to receive a skilled certification.  Beyond that initial investment, most advanced level certifications or trainings are provided or supplemented by the employer.

We need teachers, guidance counselors, business mentors, parents, and yes, even celebrities and social media influencers to educate this next generation about the benefits of the “career without a four-year” option. And what we need to commit to our young Millennials, Gen Zers and beyond is that the doors are open to all paths, without the perceived stigmas of the past, or fears of the future attached. 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Let’s start by making it not just acceptable, but exciting to hear our young people answer, “I’m going to be a skilled trade worker.”

About the author: Julie Anderson is Director of Recruitment and Retention at Marietta-based Wrench Group, a national leader in home services operating 22 brands across 16 markets nationwide. She has more than 25 years of experience in corporate recruiting and training.