How Leaders Can Better Support The Skilled Trades: Looking at the American workforce more than a year into the pandemic, many of us now have a clearer understanding of the essential jobs in our communities. Over the past 18 months, we saw the critical importance of skilled trades. This observation goes far beyond my industry of facilities management. Whether in a pandemic or in a time of prosperity, I believe skilled trades are the backbone of our workforce.
But with Baby Boomers retiring at an accelerated pace and the pipeline of new skilled workers hitting a low point, now is the time to support the trades, and I believe leaders in these industries can encourage this support by starting at a grassroots level.
The Challenges Of Supply And Demand
First, let’s dive deeper into the issue of supply and demand for the trades. According to PeopleReady, an industrial staffing agency, the average number of postings for skilled trade jobs has increased 46% year-over-year as of May 2021. Meanwhile, many members of today’s younger generations have become less interested in vocational education and careers in the trades. A 2017 survey of young adults, for example, found that only 3% of respondents were interested in careers in construction.
Perhaps these supply and demand challenges can be partially attributed to a misconception I’ve found parents and students often hold: They believe vocational education is subpar compared to a four-year university. But when you break down the numbers, there is a compelling case to consider the trades.
Pre-pandemic, the average undergraduate tuition cost was roughly $28,000, which equates to more than $110,000 after four years. Comparatively, the total cost of a trade school averages $33,000 for the entire education. In my experience, the trade school curriculum is typically designed to be completed in one or two years, which also gives students the additional benefit of entering the workforce sooner. And according to NPR, “While a shortage of workers is pushing wages higher in the skilled trades, the financial return from a bachelor’s degree is softening, even as the price — and the average debt into which it plunges students — keeps going up.”
Starting At The Grassroots Level
You and your company can support the trades by starting at a grassroots level. Perhaps your business could sponsor a local event that supports young people interested in the trades. My company, for example, is sponsoring a construction camp for middle- and high-school-age girls living in our home market of Philadelphia. The camp is free to all participants and provides hands-on experiences and mentorship. If you’re interested in doing something similar, you can contact local organizations that align with your company.
I also recommend finding ways to include your business partners to offer mentorship opportunities for students. Finally, you can look for charities or educational programs where you can make a real impact. In the trades, you could also reach out to your local technical institutes or union halls.
Looking Toward The Future
The crucial role of trades workers during the pandemic is impossible to overlook. They helped keep America fed, clothed, informed, healthy and safe. These essential workers included janitorial specialists who continue to help prevent the spread of viruses, HVAC companies that ensure we have satisfactory indoor air quality, and plumbers and electricians who make sure our infrastructure is safe and solid. The list goes on. The trades proved to be essential in 2020, and I believe taking steps to garner support for them is important in 2021 and beyond.
We know the demand for trade jobs is not going away. But what we do not know is the interest level in future high school graduates and young adults entering this industry in the future. With a shift in the image of skilled trades workers, combined with more education and mentoring opportunities for all, I believe we can start to make progress.