by Chase O. a winner of the 2017 HomeAdvisor Scholarship Program
The 2017 HomeAdvisor Scholarship Program awarded $5,000 scholarships to three outstanding students who submitted essays outlining their ideas to solve the trade labor shortage. Essays were first reviewed internally then sent to an esteemed panel of HomeAdvisor Service Professionals who made the final winning selections. Want to know more? Click here.
The saying “work smart, not hard” could easily be used to sum up the mentality of most young Americans who are trying to decide on a career path. High schools preach the mentality that the 4-year degree is the standard, and anything else below it is considered alternative. Guidance counselors use careers in the trades as “cautionary tales”, and now more than ever, the view on a career in the trades is considered “lower class”, not to mention we refer to the lower middle class as “working class”. The skilled labor shortage is an issue that I personally feel connected to because of my experiences. In this paper, I’ll share my personal story and what I learned from my time as a union carpenter apprentice. From there, I’ll discuss the factors that I believe are the root cause of the skilled labor shortage and what people in different positions can do to address the issue.
Lessons from My Experience
During one of my first days working as a carpenter, I was working with our crew’s crane rigger. In our time in between crane picks we got to know each other and I learned that he wasn’t too happy with his job. It wasn’t so much the life long career of physical labor, but the low morale. He was putting his body on the line by physically building the work, but adversarial relations between management and tradesmen were making him regret his career choice. I have found that many people who join the trades do so because they would rather tolerate the physical stress rather than mental stress, but he was getting both, which made it not worthwhile. He had a family with kids, and what made it worse was that he was trapped into this job because of his financial situation. While union carpenters do make good money in the state of Minnesota, leaving the trades later in life meant taking a pay cut, one that this man couldn’t afford.
During another memorable day shortly after, one of our crew members had a son who was waiting to hear back from a college as to whether his kid was accepted. He talked with anxious pride all day about how he wanted something better for his kid, and when he finally got the news that he had been accepted, the man was ecstatic.
A few months went by, and I knew I didn’t want to stay as a carpenter forever. However, I had grown curious of the construction industry. The curiosity as well as my point of view as a carpenter made me want to pursue a college degree so that I could one day become one of the project managers on a project like the one I was on. I thought that if I was in that position, I could make things better.
Overall Causes and Solutions to the Shortage
Just through my experience as a carpenter, I saw some things directly that would deter people from that kind of work. However, I think the greater labor shortage problem is cultural. While the first construction site I worked on did show me some problems with the trades, I’ve worked on jobs with good morale since. The following section of this paper outlines several root causes and things that need to change before we start to see a decrease in the skills gap.
Low Morale Work
As I saw through my experience, a low morale jobsite can turn people off to a career in the trades. Myself and the two other apprentices I worked with are no longer carpenters. I believe people working in lower morale jobs will be likely to leave the trades if they are young and have the option to choose another career path.
Low morale also fuels labor shortages in future generations because of how parents in these kinds of jobs portray them to their kids, who then portray this to their friends. It’s natural for parents to want a better life for their children then what they had for themselves, but unfortunately the parents bad experience reflects on all careers in the trades. I have a theory on this issue: there are a lot of jobs with low morale in both blue and white-collar industries. But because there is so little common knowledge about all the different careers in the trades, people are far more likely to associate a single bad story with all construction jobs. However, when there is low morale in a more commonly known white collar job, people are more likely to assume it was just a bad company and not a problem with the industry.
There has been a huge shift in management philosophy in the 21st century that gives more respect and trust to workers. This is outlined in Steven Coveys book “The 8th Habit” where he argues how important this is in the new “knowledge worker age” where now more than ever, workers are being paid for their knowledge instead of labor. He argues that in this age you must boost morale and build trust between coworkers to have a creative and productive environment. He also describes that the previous management philosophy is one based off the “industrial worker age”, which is based on control. I believe the construction industry is more likely to breed managers who operate as in the “industrial age”, and that a shift in management philosophy to mirror the “knowledge worker” would greatly benefit the construction industry and make careers in the trades much more appealing.
The Social Appeal of 4-Year Degrees
One simple reason kids are choosing 4-year degrees is the social appeal. Attending a university means 4 years of being immersed in a community of likeminded people and making lifelong friends though the college experience, something that trade schools and trade careers lack. Perceptions of this as a more appealing lifestyle are stronger than ever due to social media, public figures and Hollywood.
I’ve seen the effects of this personally since I’ve started school and in my time spent in a fraternity. In this environment, I know people personally who are well into their college careers who still don’t know what they want to do, but what is keeping them in school is the social aspect. Even though we all graduate and go our separate ways, to leave a university and go into a career in the trades is extremely undesirable, and to most, feels like abandoning their life to go into something less.
While it’s hard to change an entire cultures perception of the low social status of a career in the trades, there are a few things that I think would help. One is to focus on trade school itself. I’ve had friends leave trade school to go to a university because they felt that there was no sense of community within those schools. Trade schools and the blue-collar employers need to increase their social appeal by boosting their sense of community. I also think that if the larger universities offered vocational programs, people might be more willing to go into the trades because they would also be getting the college experience that is not otherwise offered in those career paths.
Trade Careers are Viewed as “Unsuccessful”
A common motivation factor for people throughout all backgrounds and personality types is attaining high social status. Along with the fun social appeal, 4-year programs are also perceived by this generation to be the social status standard, with vocational programs looked at as alternative. There’s a notion prevalent from high school that you should aspire to work in a meaningful career and that work shouldn’t feel like work. Thus, reshaping the expectation of a good job into something that doesn’t look like worki. The problem then becomes that vocational careers are considered hard work. This takes away the aspirational aspect of vocational careers, implying that those who enter the trades were unsuccessful at an aspirational career and that they had to settle for something less.
To address this issue, there’s two notions that need to change. One: the younger generation needs to value hard work as past generations have, and two: we need a reason to consider vocational careers aspirational. This would be the hardest issue to address, however, I think it would have the greatest effect on the negative view on vocational careers.
One thing that adds to this notion is that as a society, we idolize and closely watch successful businessmen such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mark Cuban. Yet we rarely hear of or talk about the success stories of people who are successful in blue collar career fields. Therefore, I believe we need more blue-collar public figures who appeal to the younger generation, people that can be looked up to, that make work cool and that give reason to aspire to vocational careers.
Specific Actions That Can be Taken
Throughout this section, I’ll summarize the things that specific entities can do to help reduce the skills gap.
Employers of Tradespeople
Treat laborers more as “knowledge workers”. This could be best done by focusing on hiring and training managers to adopt this management philosophy.
When Possible, include the input of tradespeople in planning and decision-making. This would shift the mentality of those workers from one of showing up and doing what they are told, to having actual creative input and by in which greatly increases job satisfaction.
Work with high schools to both help implement vocational learning opportunities and to speak to students and advocate for vocational careers.
Fund high schools vocational training programs as I’ll describe in further detail in the High School section. This would be in high interest of the government as the increased funding to schools wouldn’t only improve education and stimulate the local economies surrounding high schools, but it would also help fill many jobs providing a “double return on investment” for the government.
Make opportunities in vocational careers known to the student population and invite more speakers and representatives to speak on those kinds of careers, focusing not just on providing information, but to provide a pathos by giving kids an emotional reason to want to aspire to be successful tradespeople.
Partner with employers to create pipelines for students to get vocational training while in high school. A great example of this already happening is at Randolph Technical Highschool in Philadelphia, where the school specifically focuses on getting students professional training and certifications, most notably their welding program where they’ve had 100% job placement after high school. This specific example is an inner-city school where there was a 65% graduation rate among all high schoolers in the area as compared to Randolph’s 84%. Surrounding traditional high schools have also began to implement some of these training opportunities, although to a lesser degree, they are still having a positive impact on students. For more on Randolph Technical Highschool and for reference of the statistics above, see the article “A High School Where College Is Not the Goal” in The Atlantic by Gillian B. White.
First, create more of a sense of community for students attending. Implement student activities and promote school sports, even start rivalries between schools and junior college teams.
Implement on campus living, or partner with universities to combine student body’s.
Create vocational programs allowing those students to be a part of the regular student population. Universities would have two main incentives to do this, one: the extremely high post-graduation job placement rate would reflect well on the university and two: students who are undecided and nearing dropping out or that are only still in it for the social aspect could have a reason to stick around to complete two years of vocational schooling.
Make available information on vocational programs and career paths to students and require academic advisors to have knowledge in vocational career paths.
Highlight success stories of blue collar entrepreneurs. Even though there are already similar shows such as dirty jobs, they aren’t targeted as much to the younger generation. Something that would greatly help the social aspect of this problem would be a show on a major network that already has a young demographic focused on blue collar success.
What I Can Do
Encouraging others to go the trade school route is something that I already have done with friends of mine who are struggling in college. I find the best way to do this is to explain that it isn’t giving up aspirations, it isn’t pledging to join the lower class, that hard work isn’t something that should be a turn off but that realistically, you could make over 100k per year and still work less hours than a salaried businessperson who puts in 12 hours a day, all with a lot less mental stress.
Apart from convincing peers of the benefits, over the past year and a half, I’ve been an officer for our Construction Management Student Association. One of our new initiatives is to expand our outreach to local high schools. We have budgeted $1000 as a start to donate to local shop classes for supplies and plan on speaking in high school classes next semester to teach kids about opportunities not only in our construction management program, but to teach students about vocational career opportunities.
In conclusion, I believe the two things that would have the greatest effect on the shortage would be to integrate vocational programs into both high schools and universities, thus getting rid of the notion that careers in the trades are completely isolated from other career paths.
I apologize for the length of this paper, however I felt that to get the full picture of my point across on this issue, that cutting anything out would detract from the full story.