The Trades – the Forgotten Career Path

Introduction from a Silicon Valley CEO in the HVAC R (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration) Industry and Editorial From Jack Tester

Susan Nichol

In junior high I distinctly remember the shop teacher not only encouraging but having their student test a student made one-person helicopter behind the school one afternoon.  I was in 6th grade and I was amazed!

As I got a little older I signed up for some of these classes and both boys and girls were encouraged to find out how to work basic hand tools and electrical tools.  There was a on day summer workshop at the school where we used a drill press and drilled a hole in the center of a one-inch long piece of cylindrical plastic and adding a colorful die into the hole to create a necklace, it was all the rage.

That seems a lifetime ago and when I look around I don’t see many of these shops in the schools anymore.  My son’s junior high still had metal and wood shop, in all places, Cupertino, CA (home of Apple). I encouraged him to take the classes. In high school those places of experimentation were gone and away went the opportunity to see if the youth will do well with their hands (or even learn to change their own oil or do a minor home repair).

It doesn’t take long to notice the aging workforce in the trades, look around.  The youth that see this opportunity will be the winners as their college bound classmates run head first into big debt and an overcrowded college degree filled workforce. Meanwhile, the people that went into the trades and learned skills will be making close to or more than 6 figures (*Yes 6-figure incomes are possible as well as a well-funded retirement and benefits).  College is not for everyone and those that realize early if it isn’t a good fit for them and take classes in the trades or join unions as an apprentice will likely find themselves well ahead of the game.

Ignorance of Today’s Youth, Not Stupidity, Is Crippling the Trades

If the trades are such a good thing, you may be wondering why so many people turning away from them

Jack Tester –

From, The News, an HVAC newsletter and industry publication

There’s a difference between stupid and ignorant. Stupidity is driving 100 mph when you know the speed limit is 55 mph. Driving 55 mph because you didn’t realize the speed limit was only 45 mph is ignorance.

When thinking about their career options, today’s youth are not choosing to pursue the trades. This is not due to stupidity. They’re simply ignorant to what a career in the trades can offer. What a change from 30-plus years ago, right?

For young people growing up in the 1950s through the ’80s, there was a good chance that one of their close relatives was active in the trades. A higher percentage of the workforce worked in skilled positions compared to today, and as such, they knew about the opportunities to be had there, as well as how to find training and ultimately get hired.

In the early 1980s, I was involved with a plumbing apprentice training program for a local union. I remember that the new apprentice roles were primarily made up of sons, nephews, and neighbors of current union members or union contractors. A little nepotistic? Yes, it was. But it proves the point that young people know a good thing when they see it and will jump at the chance for a career in the trades if given a little encouragement. That’s a good thing.

If the trades are such a good thing, you may be wondering why so many people are turning away from them. Well, let me offer some thoughts.

RECENT IMMIGRATION

In the early part of the last century, Italian, Irish, and Eastern European immigrants came ashore having worked in the trades. They continued their work here, and their children entered the trades. To this day, the trades are heavily populated by these groups, now two to four generations removed but still active and comprising a large percentage of the workforce.

Recent immigrants now entering the U.S. do not have the same deep heritage in the trades as their predecessors. As a result, their sons and daughters don’t have parents encouraging them to consider that career path. In short, the workforce shortage we now face has not been alleviated by immigration. That being said, the industry has not reached out to make the trades highly accessible to new immigrants, either. Maybe it is part protectionism, or maybe, dare I say, part racism scattered here and there. Whatever it is, this needs to change if the workforce shortage we all face is to be solved and equal opportunity is given to all. Anyone who is willing to work hard deserves at least an introduction to the trades.

HOUSEHOLD CHARACTERISTICS

According to the most recent U.S. census, 31 percent of households are headed by a single parent. Of those, 80 percent are headed by women. This is a sharp contrast to 1950, when only 10 percent of homes were managed by single parents. We could argue all day about the full ramifications of these statistics on today’s youth and society. The fact is, for many current tradesmen, their interest in the trades grew by working alongside their dads on home improvement projects or weekend side jobs. Due to these shifting demographics, the trades are getting less and less exposure by the day. I met a bright young man recently who did not know how to operate a vise grip. I can’t imagine that occurring a generation ago.

IGNORANCE NEEDS TO END

Sure, we can blame a changing society, but have you ever asked students what they hear from their school counselors? You’ll likely hear the same message that’s been touted by educators for the last 40 years, and that is “college for all.” The message is then echoed at home, because while parents may agree that the trades offer a successful career path, they’ll quickly qualify that statement with, “but not for my kid.”

As a result, they fall back on what they know. This could be four-year college or jobs that offer immediate access, such as retail, food service, transportation, and warehouse positions. They know what a barista, truck driver, or forklift operator do each day. They don’t know what HVAC means or what a tech does. Ignorance, not stupidity.

I applaud any person who applies themselves and makes a fair wage, regardless of the job. The difference, however, comes down to career opportunities. When you compare the path of an HVAC technician and a forklift operator for Amazon, the results aren’t even close — both in immediate pay and in future opportunities. The trades offer the chance to ultimately become a small business owner, without the prospect of being micro-managed by warehouse drones.

Young people are making career decisions based on ignorance of what the trades offer. They are taking the paths most available and recognizable to them. I think it’s in everyone’s best interest — parents, educators, and business owners — that the trades become a viable option for as many young people as possible.

There are some amazing organizations dedicated to making the trades more accessible for young people. The Nexstar Legacy Foundation’s “Explore the Trades” program has a career day kit that will help educators and people like you present the trades to high school students from all walks of life. If you’re interested in learning more, visit www.explorethetrades.org . Imagine the impact such a simple experience could have on the career path of a young person.

Many contractors are offering “Ride and Decide” programs, which place high school students in trucks alongside technicians, giving these students the opportunity to shadow skilled workers for a period of time. This is an easy way to introduce the trades to young people while growing a workforce for your business — talk about a win-win.

Today’s youth are ignorant of the many benefits that come with a longstanding career in the trades. It does not have to remain that way. Start taking advantage of the many available resources to spark a newfound interest in the trades within your community today.

Publication date: 7/23/2018

Jack Tester is president & CEO of Nexstar Network, a business development and training organization serving hundreds of independent plumbing, HVAC, and electrical contractors in North America and internationally. He can be reached at 651-789-8512 or jackt@nexstarnetwork.com.