My buddy Ed is a building contractor. He does great work, and has all of it he can handle. He recently put up a pole building for us, which will serve as my new work shop (woohoo!). There were a couple of delays along the way, and when I asked what was up, the answer was pretty much what I expected: he was getting behind, because he can’t get and keep enough reliable employees. In addition, the subcontractor he used to grade the site was so busy that he put the project back by a few weeks, and there was no one else available that could get it done any faster. This skills gap – work that needs to get done, and not enough workers to tackle it – is shaping up to be a serious problem.
Ed’s situation isn’t unique. In our area (Western PA), and in many other parts of the country, the number of qualified men and women working in the trades is rapidly diminishing. By an estimate cited in a CBS News report, for every person entering the trades, five of us old farts retire! As the baby boomer bubble moves forward, it’s likely to only get worse.
Meanwhile, scores of kids graduate college every year. Many of them, with certain skill sets such as engineering or computer programming, have no trouble finding well-paying jobs. Unfortunately, many others discover that their chosen course of study hasn’t done much to prepare them for the jobs that exist in today’s world. Even among our kids’ friends, we know of several who have college degrees – and college debt – but ended up in low-paying, relatively unskilled jobs, because there turned out to be little or no demand for their newly-acquired skills. Meanwhile, in many areas, employers are begging for more electricians, plumbers, carpenters, HVAC techs, masons and welders.
For decades, the conventional wisdom has been “Want a good job? You must spend four years in college!” While that certainly holds true for many occupations, there are other career paths that don’t necessarily require an increasingly expensive college degree. And while many manufacturing jobs vanish due to outsourcing, and retail jobs dwindle as more of us shop online, one category of jobs is here to stay for the foreseeable future: Jobs in the trades. We’ll always need capable people on-site to install and repair plumbing and HVAC systems, install wiring, and build our homes. Bottom line: Anyone in the building trades who does good work has excellent job security. And here’s a lesson from Economics 101: supply and demand also factors into the skills gap. When there’s a shortage of workers in any field, demand (and wages) go up.
Be Cool – Stay In (Tech) School
Many moons ago, when I was in high school in western New York, the student population broke down into two distinct categories: Academic and Vo-Tech. Many of those in the “academic” group looked down their noses at the BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) kids. Having only a vague idea what they really did all day, it was assumed they all stood around smoking cigarettes, working on cars, or doing something mysterious with loud, dangerous machinery. A couple of years after high school, the academics were paying the Vo-Tech kids $75 an hour to fix their cars. And it’s gone way up since then.
Although several of my friends were in the BOCES program, I went through the traditional academic program. This was mostly out of inertia, since I was NOT much interested in academics. When I graduated high school, I even went to a community college, but quit after the first semester; it just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I took a job as a carpenter’s apprentice, doing framing work on semi-custom homes. I loved the nature of the work, and being outdoors much of the time, although working outdoors during winter in Buffalo is not for the faint of heart. Anyway, after starting the framing job, I was a much happier human. A few years later, after serving in the Army, I finally DID go to a Vo-Tech school, to learn motorcycle mechanics. Hey, you can never have too many skills!
Today, the BOCES program from my old high school has 18 separate Career & Technical Education Programs, ranging from the ever-evolving Automotive Technology and body repair to more recent offerings like Computer Aided Design & Drafting, Information Technology and Construction Technology.
Many other school districts have some sort of programs, depending on the size and financial health of the district. Our school district near Pittsburgh, in conjunction with eight other school districts, operates the A.W. Beattie Career Center, a very nicely equipped facility. This sharing of resources allows the districts to do far more toward filling the skills gap than they’d be able to do on their own.
Among the many programs of study offered are Advanced computer programming, Advanced manufacturing/robotics, Automotive collision and automotive repair, Carpentry/building construction, and HVAC. Beginning in 10th grade, students can sign up for one, two or three-year courses of study. The knowledge and skills they gain at the facility provide excellent training for entry-level jobs after graduation, or a solid foundation for further education at a college or tech school. Non-traditional courses of study are encouraged; all programs are open to both boys and girls. And it’s getting more common to see women in the trades; one of the best workers on my buddy Ed’s crew is a woman.
If your district has a Vo-Tech program, there’s a chance that training may be available for adults, too. The Beattie facility participates in the ACT (Adult Career Training) Program. Adults from any of the nine participating school districts can enroll to begin or continue training to enhance their career opportunities. This is a great opportunity for more mature workers to get into a more rewarding career, and further shrink that skills gap.
Shout It From The Rooftop – After You BUILD The Rooftop!
Thankfully, as the shortage of skilled tradespeople has increased, so has the attention from some of the bigger players. Taunton Press produces a lot of high-quality books in the construction and woodworking fields, along with Fine Homebuilding and Fine Woodworking magazines, among others. About a year ago, they started the “Keep Craft Alive” initiative, to help draw attention to the availability of skills training and educational opportunities, and to celebrate the value of traditional craftsmanship. They’re also funding scholarships to help support those who want to pursue a path in the trades.
For years, I’ve enjoyed watching the skilled and affable members of the This Old House team on their PBS show. Now in its 39th season, they were a precursor to all the fix-it-up and DIY shows on HGTV and other channels today. In the current season, they introduced an outreach program called Generation NEXT, aimed at increasing awareness of the skills gap, and attracting and supporting young people interested in entering the trades. As part of the program, they’ve taken on several apprentices, and some of them appear regularly during episodes of their current project.
Wanna Shrink The Skills Gap? It’s A Dirty Job…
Another show I enjoy watching is the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs.” In every episode, host Mike Rowe takes on a dirty/dangerous/unusual job, ranging from road-kill collector to septic tank technician. Rowe is very intelligent, articulate, and down-to-earth, the kind of guy you could picture having as a friend. Turns out he’s also a HUGE supporter of finding ways to close the skills gap in the building trades.
To that end, he founded the mikeroweWORKS Foundation. The foundation’s “Profoundly Disconnected” campaign was created to challenge the prevailing belief that a four-year degree is the best path to success for most people. Citing a trillion dollars in student debt, and millions of good jobs going unfilled, he spends a lot of time talking up the benefits of a career in the trades, and the pitfalls of the skills gap, to anyone who will listen. He has appeared on numerous talk shows, and has testified before Congress. Here, he goes into a more in-depth discussion on the skills gap with Tucker Carlson:
His foundation, which is partnering with This Old House’s GenNEXT program, also provides an annual “Work Ethic” scholarship to students getting education in the trades. In 2017, This Old House contributed $500,000 to the foundation, and over 240 of the scholarships were awarded!
Helping Shrink The Skills Gap On The Home Front
So what can you do? If you have kids, make them put away the iPad, PS4, or TV remote periodically, and encourage some creative play. Our son loved playing with Legos when he was young. Actually, he still does; he just has fancier kits now. He’d spend hours building houses, cars, whatever, then he’d smash ‘em apart and start over. Hey, a little demo is good for the soul! He and one of my daughters also helped on renovation projects I was working on. He is now an architect, working as a project manager for a large firm.
If you do “fix-it” projects around the house, let them help. Most kids love to help Daddy or Mommy, and even if it might not actually be helping you, it’s helping them, just by instilling the attitude “Hey – I can fix stuff!” As one of six kids growing up, my father was constantly enlisting us to help with projects ranging from fixing a leaky faucet to replacing the brakes on the station wagon (look it up) to painting the house. He was fearless about tearing things apart, and pretty good at getting them back together in working order. Usually. In any event, we all ended up being pretty handy, with the same fearless attitude about tearing things apart.
For birthdays and Christmas, for your own kids or nephews, nieces or whoever, buy ‘em a nice little starter tool kit instead of the latest tech gizmo. Help them build a treehouse or play house, and feel the joy and sense of accomplishment that comes with having created something. For older kids, see if you can get them to sit still and watch an episode or two of “This Old House.” If you see a project going on in your neighborhood, stop by and watch for a while, from a safe distance. Lots of contractors are happy to pause for a minute, and talk to kids about what they’re doing. You might even get a great pic of that future heavy equipment operator in the cockpit of a skid steer or backhoe!
You may know that the Home Depot hosts periodic workshops, teaching various skills such as basic wiring and installing tile. They also provide a variety of activities for kids, including Science Fair Central (in partnership with Discovery), and Kids Workshops. Go spend a fun morning making something, and then have some more fun introducing them to some of the hundreds of tools in the tool aisles!
If you’re interested in providing support for some of the initiatives to support and promote the trades as a career, you can make a financial contribution to the mikeroweWORKS Foundation. You could also check with your local technical or trade schools, many of whom have a “Wish list” of items they’d like to have. At HomeFixated, we get a lot of tools to evaluate; some of them are now headed to the Beattie Career Center.
The biggest thing you can do? Talk to your kids about the value of jobs in the trades. Instill a good work ethic in them, and let them learn the satisfaction of a job well done – ANY job. You might also talk to your school board members or school guidance counselors. Ask them if they actively promote technical or trade education as an equally-desirable alternative to a four-year college education, rather than as a less-desirable option. There are a lot of great – and necessary – jobs out there. Let’s work on finding some takers!