“Passion for your work will follow your working hard at something and achieving mastery in it.” – Mike Rowe
For years, students preparing to graduate high school have heard “Work Smarter, Not Harder!” disparaging trade work and promoting a four-year degree with touted higher earning potential. While college life is exciting and developmental, the reality is many students will leave with high student debt and a job unrelated to their field of study. All the while, plumbers and electricians are in high demand with few replacements. So where did we go wrong and, how can our cities, counties, and states revive the trades?
Giving Students Direction
Clay Long, the state administrator at Idaho Career & Technical Education (CTE), knows well the challenges facing Idaho trades. He guides Idaho’s six educational regions toward developing youth and adults for the workforce. “We want to focus on the broader spectrum of career exploration. When someone sees where they are headed, it makes all the difference in the world. I would attribute that to the fact that a student feels connected, and it is not a guessing game where they are heading.”
The CTE programs available range from traditional ag to the medical field, and the CTE’s major focus right now is apprenticeship programs. While there may not be a complete welding program within a district, the CTE can partner with a local employer so that a student can go through an apprenticeship model. “If we don’t have businesses, then we won’t have successful programs. It doesn’t do a student, parent, community, or employer any good if students complete a program and the skills are not directly aligned to what the labor market needs.”
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the trades is the underlying push toward attending a four-year university. “There is still this stigma that CTE is for those students that aren’t ‘academically inclined,’ and I would argue that when I think of academically inclined, I think of students that can read and write, do math, and apply it. Every one of our programs does that. For example, a student who takes part in our CTE program and ends with a CAN certification after their first two years of school will have an easier time getting into an RN program than a student who takes multiple AP and dual credit courses.”
“With the CTE program, the student has already been exposed to medical for four years and is committed to what they are doing, so it gives them a leg up on the competition. So, when we see an oversaturated market of four-year degrees, it is because they don’t have any tangible skills to accommodate what employers are hiring for.”
Success In The Trades
Wayne Hammon, the CEO of Idaho AGC, the state’s largest network of commercial contractor professionals, has been working hard to solve the labor problem as well. With 600 companies in the Idaho AGC and 60% of them located in the Treasure Valley, helping supply these businesses with skilled labor is a tremendous task. After 18 years working in the government, Wayne was happy to work with the hardworking community of tradespeople who just want to solve
problems. While he and his team are great at their administrative jobs, please don’t ask them to hang a picture!
The AGC understands the importance of education in reviving the trades and is making in-roads with educators. “We have reached out to high school and junior high guidance counselors to educate them on a path forward [in construction]. Being a craftsman requires a lot of skill and thinking, and not every kid needs a four-year degree to be successful. [Students] can have just as successful careers in construction. So, let’s paint them a path to success tailored to their individual needs.”
Working With Local School Districts
Fortunately, the AGC has excellent school districts that are supportive of their work. For example, in the
Boise School District, students can take a bus out of town to the Dennis Technical Centers for CTE classes. The AGC paid to take all 8th graders (10,000-20,000 students) in the district to see what the CTE programs had available when enrollment was dropping. After that brief field trip, enrollment doubled. The following year, the district asked if the students could bring their parents on a Saturday, and enrollment doubled again. With higher enrollment levels, the AGC is asking contractors around the area to tell them exactly what they want at the end of the pipeline to make these programs successful. Once they know the exact skills employers are looking for, they have schools ready to develop programs to teach them.
However, what really lies at the heart of trade work is a passion for the job and the assurance of stable
employment. The AGC recognizes this and is trying to educate individuals on the perks of being a tradesperson. “Most tradesmen and women set their own schedule, and many of them own a business. That is a great way to run your life. You can live anywhere you want because there is a job in construction for you, no matter where you are. It is also a great way to make a really good wage with good benefits without college debt. It is a fast track to a rewarding, lifelong career.”
Getting Paid To Learn The Trades
Minimizing debt was important for OEC’s Construction Superintendent, Aaron Brown. Despite being pushed towards college by family, Brown knew early on that he wanted to do hands-on work. “I knew school wasn’t for me. I wasn’t going to pay for it, and I would rather get paid to learn what I want to do.” While his friends went off to college, and the inevitable debt, to discover what they wanted to do, he took a year off to travel before eventually connecting with a carpenter’s union. Through an apprenticeship, he was able to work and earn his AA in civil engineering over four years.
Brown’s enthusiasm for the trades has even extended to encouraging his nephews to pursue them as well. “I am always learning new things, and the industry is always changing. I like problem-solving, and with what we do, there is always a problem to solve.” Aaron learned about the trades after he graduated; so he sees the importance of teaching students about them early. “I think if schools preached the trades, it would change things a lot. The stability of having a job that will always be there with good pay is important. I keep telling the guys we hire that if they get good at this and take pride in their work, the sky is the limit on how far they can go.”
Making Things Happen
Someone who has gotten very good at his trade is OEC’s Furniture Superintendent, Mike Babbitt. After 30 years in the industry, his expertise is unparalleled. “I have pretty much had my hands on every system of furniture that is out there.” His trade has taken him to New Orleans, Houston, Wyoming, California, and now Idaho. To Hammon’s point, furniture installation has been a consistent and successful career for Babbitt regardless of geography. Since every job is a new experience, Babbitt embraces each challenge. Hel loves that when there is a whole team together, they can make a lot of things happen.
Making things happen is precisely why the trades are so important to revive. While architects and designers spend hours a day designing extraordinary things, it all would be meaningless without the people who put in the blood, sweat, and tears to bring them to life. So, let’s not forget that CTE programs and four-year colleges, designers and carpenters, are equally important to building strong, robust communities.
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