IndyStar on 9/26/2018 by Jessica Levy
With college costs rising and a shortage of skilled trade workers, trade school offers students an alternate path to a promising career.
In a world where college costs are rising and student loans can be stifling, high school students and their parents are increasingly looking for alternatives to expensive four-year college programs.
One alternative that has been gaining national attention is trade school. With a nationwide shortage of skilled labor, trade school can offer a non-traditional path to a well-paid and stable career. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the employment rate for people with occupational credentials — such as those obtained in trade school — is actually higher than the employment rate for those with academic credentials.
In addition to strong prospects for employment, skilled trade professions also offer competitive salaries which fall well above the minimum wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for an HVAC technician in 2017 was $49,530. The median salary for a plumber was $52,590.
Those numbers are likely to climb even higher, too. With a shortage of skilled trade workers and an increase in new construction starts in the state of Indiana, there will be plenty of well-paid work for plumbers, HVAC technicians, electricians and other workers. That shortage of skilled trade workers has very real consequences, from a shortage of housing to longer wait times to get an air conditioner fixed.
Combined, these statistics all point to the same thing: the need for more skilled trade workers throughout the state of Indiana and the entire country. Respondents to Manpower Group’s 2018 Talent Shortage Survey cited skilled trade workers as the hardest positions to fill in the United States.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that everyone from educational experts to politicians on both sides of the aisle are calling for more robust trade school attendance as a solution to the shortage of skilled trade workers.
During a speech in 2014, for example, former President Obama encouraged more students entering the trades, saying that “a lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”
Four years later, President Trump established a workforce policy advisory board aimed at improving vocational education and job training, according to the White House. The move shows that getting more students to fill the labor market’s skilled trade gap is truly of national importance.
Even as the benefits of trade school have been gaining attention from high-level experts and the media, students themselves may not be getting the message. That may, in part, be a residual side effect of a decades-long cultural emphasis on a four-year college degree.
“Since the 1980s educators have been placing more emphasis on preparing students for college at the sacrifice of vocational training,” said Scott Shaw, president and CEO of Lincoln Tech.
While the friends, family members and college counselors urging high school students to pursue a college degree likely have the best intentions, students who don’t consider other options like vocational training may miss out on a great economic opportunity.
“There are hundreds of thousands of jobs going unfilled each year in fields that don’t require a college degree and so many students are being over-educated,” Shaw said.
Whether it’s an interest in starting a career right away, innate technical skills, a desire to work with their hands or a desire to avoid the high price tag that comes with college, there are many reasons that trade school could also simply be a better fit for any given student. By assessing their individual talents and goals instead of jumping into a four-year degree program, students can end up on the path that makes the most sense for them.
Even when college may not be the best fit, though, there can sometimes be a stigma attached to attending trade school that pushes some students away. The same social pressures that can push students towards college can also push them away from trade school.
“The stigma has caused fewer people to think about and pursue many careers which are desperately needed to keep our economy moving forward,” Shaw said. “By erasing the stigma surrounding vocational training, we can ensure that employers in these fields can remain competitive by recruiting from a constant influx of new talent.” Shaw said.
The stigma problem may disappear on its own, notes Jonathan Farley, a Doctor of Philosophy who has studied educational incentives. The more successful tradesmen people see, said Farley, the more the stigma surrounding trade school will disappear.
“There is a funny episode of Frasier in which Frasier’s brother tries to impress a man he knew in school by talking about his expensive BMW. The man, now a plumber, then said that he found that that model BMW was too small for his family, so he got a bigger one. Success is the best response,” Farley said.
As news gets out that attending trade school can provide a direct path to a rewarding career, the stigma associated with trade schools may correct itself. Smart students will make smart financial decisions — and sometimes that decision will be going to trade school.
That’s good news for students, for the economy, and for anyone still waiting to get their air conditioner fixed.