The supply shortage in the trades industry continues to impact our nation's infrastructure employers. Over the last few years, 80% of firms have reported difficulty finding qualified craft workers, as base pay rates for service professionals continue to rise.
With wages increasing more each year for skilled technicians, one must wonder: why aren’t job seekers jumping at the chance to find easy employment with great pay in the trades?
Across the entire trades industry, employers are scrambling to find qualified candidates as fewer and fewer students decide to enter the trade workforce. At the time of writing, there are about 30 million jobs in the United States with an average base pay of $55,000 per year that don’t require a college degree, yet many university students are paying nearly three times that amount in tuition with no guarantee of employment; only to end up making even less. With the college degree path wavering, many veterans in the industry are scratching their head at the lack of enthusiasm for technical education.
While the four year degree has often been seen as the direct pipeline to a great job, the benefits of a traditional degree path are softening: 27% of trade school grads earn more than their university counterparts, while taking on average less than one third of the debt, and enter the workforce 2 years earlier with higher employment numbers.
While it's undeniable that certain four year degree paths lead to much higher earnings, the main takeaway is that the gap between the trades and universities is much lower than what you would expect given the shortage of workers in the field.
So why then are we seeing such a massive drop in labor participation among trade careers?
An explanation for the decline
Maybe our culture’s skewed perception of the industry is to blame.
Across the board, "there's that perception of the bachelor's degree being the American dream, the best bang for your buck," according to the deputy executive director of Advance Career Technical Education, Kate Blosveren Kreamer. Parents undeniably want what’s best for their children, and universities continue to spend millions on elaborate advertising to keep that image of prestige alive in the minds of the American family. The view that college is your golden ticket into career success and financial stability motivates millions of students to enter four year programs despite declining returns on investment across the country.
According to Spenser Villwock, interim CEO of Independent Electrical Contractors, “the message became that you need to have a college degree or you’re a lesser individual. We aren’t exposing people to these opportunities, and the funding model in public schools supports college-or-bust.” Trade professions consistently receive the negative stereotype that technical education will only lead to a dead end job, which results in the ill conceived narrative that technicians are lazy or weren’t smart enough to get into college. In reality, college graduates face an ever widening opportunity cost as the price of tuition increases and employment rates stagnate, all while students in vocational programs receive a wide array of benefits from their craft.
What's happening now
Luckily, public policymakers have begun to recognize the value a trade career can provide, and have started working on improving the climate surrounding technical education. In 2018, former President Trump reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act: the principal source of U.S. federal funding for the improvement of secondary and postsecondary career and technical education (CTE) programs.
This authorization will increase funding from $1.2 to $1.3 billion by 2024, expanding the reach of CTE programs to ensure more students have access to the technical career paths. With president Biden undertaking a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, we’ll likely see an even greater push for technical education in order to keep the project on time.
Alongside policy recommendations and plans, fostering a healthy perspective around technical education should be a key step taken to remedy the technician shortage. Across the country, millions of hard working professionals spend their day working on the systems and infrastructure that keep our day to day life functioning.
Trade workers represent the backbone of the American workforce, and should be treated with the same respect as mainstream career paths.