The old chestnut used to be, “Go to college, get a good job.” The implication was you don’t want to end up in the trades. Yet, while there is a glut of lawyers everywhere, it’s pretty challenging to find a skilled carpenter, says entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Streit, who notes that skilled trades such as carpenters, masons, and truck drivers “are required to make the world go around.”
Streit sees the rise and renewed value of the skilled trade worker as an important macro trend in 2023 and beyond. He says, “While AI may displace many roles in technology and finance in the near term, the trade worker should remain in high demand for the foreseeable future.”
He’s right on the money. Today, skilled trades are in high demand. Becoming an electrician is so competitive that even scoring a 96 out of 100 on the certification exam doesn’t guarantee earning a license.
What’s more, mastering a trade, such as electrical work, carpentry, plumbing, or masonry, is only half the battle. A tradesperson still needs to know how to run a business, which is where management, marketing, and other business-related skills can make or break a new business owner.
At Williamson College of the Trades in Pennsylvania, the focus is not on typical academic subjects but on hands-on skills such as carpentry, masonry, machine tooling, and power plant technology — “old school,” according to college president Michael Rounds. Although the trades may have fallen out of fashion recently, the school has been turning out skilled trade workers for well over a century.
Established back in 1888 by a wealthy dry goods merchant, Williamson College began by training young men to be blacksmiths, bricklayers, harness-makers, and wheelwrights. Since our horses are now under the hood rather than trotting on cobblestones, the trades have likewise evolved with the times—and the need for skilled tradespeople persists.
Disparagement for the trades is disappearing with the changing times as well. Recent surveys show 85 percent of college-age people and 94 percent of their parents agree that skilled trades are “a quality career option.”
Then there’s college debt. Faced with being saddled by six-figure loans after graduation from a traditional four-year college, more young people have begun opting for an associate’s degree, augmenting it with training in a skilled trade. The pandemic only accelerated this momentum.
And a four-year degree may not be what a young person wants or needs. One bright young man, who loves cars and has been studying mechanical engineering, realized that instead of building cars, he wanted to fix them. He ditched his college studies and earned enough from his auto repair job at Les Schwab to buy a house at 25. Another student earned a political science degree and then returned to school to become a firefighter.
This is a common new trend. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, one in 12 students now enrolled in community college to learn a skilled trade already holds a bachelor’s degree. College is a reflex; learning a trade is a choice.
Labor shortages in the skilled trades have been escalating. We see this daily in construction and transportation, for example. Thus, the combination of fewer years of study, less debt, and excellent pay for a skilled trade has become very attractive to students pondering a career in which both their time to mastery and the money they’ll earn and owe, are paramount.