It’s 2019 and the robots haven’t taken over...yet. Despite wild internet theories and predictions that robotics and automation would take jobs away from Americans, especially in the labor and trades, the United States is actually looking at a large skills gap in the trades and an even larger number of unfilled jobs.
By some accounts, there are nearly half a million more jobs available in the skilled trades than workers with the skills to fill those roles, and that number is expected to rise to 2 million within a decade. These are good-paying jobs that are accessible through an apprenticeship or two-year degree, and many of these jobs have salaries that start out higher than jobs associated with traditional 4-year college degrees. One would think that people would be lining up for these jobs...but they’re not. So what is happening?
Bye Bye, Boomers
In short, there aren’t enough young people entering the trades to replace the aging Baby Boomers leaving the workforce. For every one person that enters the trades, five retire. Once all the Boomers retire, we’ll be looking at almost five million open positions in the construction and extraction industry alone. And it’s not just a lack of people of working-age to fill these roles. To look at why these Boomer-vacated jobs aren’t being filled, we need to look at the next generation of workers- the ones currently in high school and college and their peers.
College or Bust
Many young people these days are under the impression that the only way to earn a livable wage and build a good life for themselves is to go to college and get a bachelor's degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 69.7% of 2016 high school graduates were enrolled in college as of October of 2016. And to break it down even further, 2 of 3 of those recent high school graduates were enrolled at a 4-year college.
When it comes to the students still in high school, only 1 in 5 of these students have taken three or more credits in occupational education, which often indicates an interest in the trades. This number has fallen from 1 in 4 students back in 1990, according to the U.S. Department of Education. To make matters worse, many schools stopped offering shop classes or mechanical classes, which was usually a student’s first exposure to the type of hands-on experience that could spark an interest in the trades. Some say the No Child Left Behind program was a driving force behind shutting down shop classes in schools and putting increased focus on a preparing students for a college education.
Today, a bachelor’s degree now costs more than $100,000, on average and at times, even more than that. According to the Federal Reserve, in 2016, 42% of students borrowed money to go to college and on average, those students graduated owing between $20,000 and $25,000 and will still be paying off those loans into their 30’s. Today, the financial return on a bachelor’s degree is softening while tuition continues to climb.
Meanwhile, a student entering the trades immediately out of high school will enter the workforce with no student loan debt (or a substantially smaller amount owed if they choose a 2-year associate’s degree) and will begin earning right away – oftentimes at an hourly rate that will surpass or equal what their college-graduate peers will earn upon graduation. By the time their peers start graduating, these workers will already have at least four years of experience and earnings behind them. And there is real money to be made in the trades. A 2017 study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that over 3 million people have well-paying jobs in construction and are earning a median salary of $59,000.
While Boomers retiring and a large number of graduating seniors going to college are the major driving forces behind this shortage, unemployment in general is sitting at 3.8% as of March 2019, which generally means that most people willing and able to work are working, and the job market is competitive across the board. Workers are in demand in service industries, trades and professional positions.
Another factor is that the 2008 Great Recession hit the trades hard, especially in the home section. It’s estimated that over 1.5 million residential construction workers changed careers or retired when they couldn’t find jobs during the Recession. And since then, that industry has only recovered maybe half of the workers they lost during the Great Recession. That leaves a gap of nearly 750,000 jobs that were once filled but are currently sitting empty. And with fewer people entering the trades, those jobs are likely to remain unfilled.
To add to the shortage, our population and economy continues to grow, and that growth brings an enormous need for workers in construction and extraction, especially. According to the BLS, “employment of construction and extraction occupations is projected to grow 11 percent from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations, a gain of about 747,600 new jobs. Overall growth in the economy and population will increase demand for new buildings, roads, and other structures, which will create new jobs in construction and extraction occupations.”
Besides growing, our country is also aging. Roads, buildings, infrastructure, even homes will all need maintenance, repair and attention in the coming years. So the opportunities for young people entering the trades is looking promising, if we can lure them to the trades side of the workforce.
And with this growth comes technology and automation (this is where the robots come in!) and the need for workers to learn, use and maintain these new technologies. Manufacturers commonly report that they are slow to invest in new technology due to the training requirements and lack of workers to actually train. These manufacturers also report a rising need for workers with trade skills because of the increasing technological sophistication in every industry.
Reaching the Kids
However, despite all the statistics and data on good jobs available in the trades, kids are still lining up to go to college. Some states are finding ways to make the trades career path more visible to high school students. According to an NPR article, “Iowa community colleges and businesses are collaborating to increase the number of "work-related learning opportunities," including apprenticeships, job shadowing and internships. Tennessee has made its technical colleges free.”
In the private sector, Klein Tools is partnering with SkillsUSA to launch an inaugural National Signing Day, which will celebrate thousands of high school seniors dedicated to pursuing a career in the trades on May 8, 2019. And for this inaugural launch, NFL Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has signed on to participate and will be attending the Silicon Valley Career Technical Education in San Jose, CA, alongside his father, Tony Garoppolo, a career electrician. “Just like Signing Day is an unforgettable moment for high school athletes, it is just as important for students who choose to pursue ongoing technical education. My father, an electrician for over 40 years, supported me and my family with a stable and rewarding career. Having witnessed firsthand the hard work, skill and dedication it takes to be an electrician, I applaud the students who are taking that next step to a gratifying career in the skilled trades,” says Jimmy Garoppolo.
Much like signing days for high school student athletes, this National Signing Day will recognize and celebrate students who are announcing their career plans and signing “letters of intent” for a job offer, apprenticeship or advanced technical training. The hope is that this program will bring more awareness to the skilled trades, and get more students considering the trades. The students that are “signing” will receive a Klein Tools signing kit and be able to purchase their own set of Klein Tools at a discounted rate, thanks to a partnership with Home Depot, to start their career.
“SkillsUSA predicts that by 2025 there will be 3.4 million new manufacturing jobs available. Right now, six out of 10 open skilled production positions are unfilled due to the shortage of workers,” says Klein Tools Co-President Mark Klein. “We are thrilled Jimmy and Tony Garoppolo are partnering with us for this national inaugural event recognizing the tradespeople of our future. Together, we will be able to generate awareness of the many benefits a career in the skilled trades offers, especially among today’s younger workforce.”
The future is looking pretty bright for those that do decide to enter the trades. Employers are looking to draw in more workers and are taking a hard look at their pay scales, benefits and other perks. Salaries are currently on the rise and as the shortage continues, it will only drive those salaries higher. And since recruitment is so challenging in the first place, many firms are working hard to create real career paths and growth for their employees to retain them. Some construction managers who have experience or have worked their way up are earning an average of $101,000 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some contractors have noted that if this shortage continues, there could be people in the trades earning more than some doctors and lawyers. Whether or not that part is true remains to be seen, but the point is, the job in the trades are good positions that pay well. Reaching the kids to get them to see this bright outlook for themselves is step one, but with help from companies like Klein Tools and organizations like SkillsUSA, coupled with state programs that work to bring awareness to the trades, the skills gap and current decline in the trades doesn’t have to be a permanent problem.
GET MORE INFO ON NATIONAL SIGNING DAY, INCLUDING A LIST OF HOST SCHOOLS NEAR YOU AT KLEINTOOLS.COM