Mike Rowe, the longtime host of the hit show Dirty Jobs, and vocal advocate for the value of blue-collar work and workers, once said, “I think a trillion dollars of student loans and a massive skills gap are precisely what happens to a society that actively promotes one form of education as the best course for the most people. I think the stigmas and stereotypes that keep so many people from pursuing a truly useful skill begin with the mistaken belief that a four-year degree is somehow superior to all other forms of learning.”
While there are many reasons for the skills gap that has resulted in a national shortage of skilled laborers, Rowe’s reference gets at the heart of the problematic messaging that has been one of the primary issues driving this trend. Beginning in the 1980s, the way we have talked about careers in the skilled trades has been both overtly and implicitly dismissive. While going to college and continuing education beyond high school is perfectly admirable, there has been a troubling social and cultural stigma associated with not going to college. This idea, reinforced by institutions and individuals across society, has contributed to the erroneous notion that skilled trades professions are somehow less respectable or desirable. The way we think and talk about things matter, and because perception ultimately shapes reality, this dynamic has led to a significant and worsening national shortage of skilled trades workers.
Along with that shift in messaging, we have seen a steady decline — and, in some markets, a wholesale breakdown — of the training resources and programs available to aspiring plumbers, electricians, carpenters, pipe fitters, painters, tile-setters, and other skilled workers. Whether because of budgetary shortages, misplaced priorities, or both, vocational training and classes in many schools have been eliminated. This fragmentation of the training infrastructure has left even those young people who aspire to careers in the skilled trades wondering where to go and find the training they need to move forward in their chosen profession.
Another significant contributing factor to this critical shortfall is the continuation of big-picture demographic shifts that will vacate tens of millions of positions in the next few years — solely from baby-boomer retirement projections. More than three out of five construction firms are currently struggling to fill skilled trades positions, and an Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) survey recently reported that nearly 75 percent of firms predict additional shortfalls of qualified skilled trade workers in the near future.
Those shortages have a very real adverse economic impact on businesses and communities. Construction and development now take more time and more money. The issue isn’t just about raw numbers, but also about skill and experience: fewer experienced workers means that construction teams tend to be less efficient and productive. In many markets, the total cost of construction — including labor and materials — is rising faster than the cost of occupancy. These factors are contributing to projects costing more to create up front than to actually rent out and maintain — an unsustainable pattern. Remarkably, nearly a third of billion-dollar manufacturers are facing estimated losses in excess of $100 million in the next five-plus years, due in large part to a shortage of qualified skilled personnel.
Partnerships and Possibilities
Fortunately, some forward-thinking private companies and industry partners have begun to recognize the extent of the problem and are working to find new ways to spur interest and opportunity for young people in skilled trades professions. Some have partnered with civic entities and municipalities, especially in those markets where government and community leaders have recognized the urgency of the situation — and the value in taking coordinated action.
In Michigan, for example, a statewide campaign called Going Pro has been implemented as part of an effort to boost perception and showcase career opportunities in the skilled trades. The program uses grant monies to create public-private partnerships with employers to design training models that adapt to evolving employer demand. In the last four years alone, the state of Michigan has committed more than $72 million dollars in competitive awards to more than 2,200 Michigan companies through the fund, retaining 56,000 jobs and creating 14,000 new jobs in the process.
Programs from nonprofits, like the Skilled Trades Enrollment Assistant Program (STEAP) from Detroit-based nonprofit Better Men Outreach, can also play an important role. STEAP provides tutoring and basic job training to prepare at-risk and formerly incarcerated individuals for skilled trades apprenticeships and job opportunities.
Forward-thinking private companies and industry partners are working to find new ways to spur interest in skilled trades professions.
In Detroit, A. Phillip Randolph Technical High School is showing how impactful educational institutions can be in promoting and popularizing skilled trades career opportunities. The school’s remarkable Construction Trades Career and Technical Education (CTE) program equips students with the skills they need to succeed in skilled trades careers. The CTE program not only provides Randolph students with the hands-on experience and training they need to operate equipment safely and skillfully, but it also teaches them valuable skills like reading blueprints — all coordinated with reading and math fundamentals.
Founded four years ago in conjunction with local nonprofit partner Junior Achievement of Southeastern Michigan, the Sachse Construction Academy is an annual event that provides 500+ students from Detroit-area high schools with hands-on exposure to the skilled trades. Students participating in the event experience unique training opportunities, demonstrations, and interactions with dozens of subcontractors and skilled tradespeople from across the state. In addition to exercises with real-world tools and techniques, students are also introduced to skilled trade career opportunities. Attendees get the chance to meet with unions, vocational schools, a diverse range of experienced skilled trades professionals, and to apply for an online training scholarship from Schurtape. A job fair for young adults also helps connect young people with real job opportunities in real time.
Perhaps most exciting, the Sachse Construction Academy has received support from government leaders and is working with a long and growing list of industry and trade partners, including national names like Home Depot and Carhartt. New local partners have signed on, including the Year Round Youth Services Program, an initiative funded by a new federal grant via Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation (DESC), a nonprofit that provides job placement for disconnected youth.
While more work is needed, programs like these are already having an impact. Together, civic, education, community, and business leaders can create the kind of synergies and opportunities that get young people engaged, involved, and inspired.
However, there is more work to be done and more opportunities to make a difference. Community colleges can take ownership of this issue and lead the way in promoting and facilitating training for the skilled trades. Private companies could be creating and supporting more robust internship and training programs and coordinating with hiring commitments.
Municipalities and civic and community leaders can also be working to invest in their own future by creating incentives for private organizations to provide those kinds of meaningful and engaging training and internship programs.
The structure, coordination, and financial support from public and private programs and partnerships can not only provide much-needed training and hiring opportunities, it can also help change the narrative around the skilled trades. The skills gap is a uniquely American anomaly (we don’t see similar shortfalls in other countries). A quintessentially American mix of ingenuity, private businesses, and public institutions have the ability to solve the problem and close the skilled trades gap.