Opinion

DON BRUNELL | Skilled trade jobs go unfilled in slow economy

Millions of unemployed college graduates are back where they started, living with their parents.  Upon receiving their diploma, they find themselves saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find a job. More than 36 percent of those who have found jobs aren’t working in their chosen profession and many are working for minimum wage.

At the same time, millions of good-paying jobs are going unfilled.

Nationally, an estimated three million jobs are available in the skilled trades – electricians, plumbers, manufacturing workers, pipefitters, mechanics, appliance repair, computer techs and welders.   Known as blue collar jobs, they routinely pay $40,000 to $60,000 a year or more.  According to Salary.com, the average heavy equipment operator in Seattle earns more than $93,000 a year in wages and benefits.

Still, these jobs go begging – and the situation will only worsen as skilled craft workers retire. “The average age of a skilled craftsman such as a carpenter is 49; welder, 55; plumber, 56; and stonemason, 69,” said Phil Crone, executive officer of the Dallas Builders Association.

Washington’s Workforce Training Board reports that, despite the best efforts of the state, the Association of Washington Business, labor unions and community colleges, our state faces a significant shortage of skilled craft workers.

From 2016 to 2021, job openings in manufacturing, production, installation, maintenance and repair are projected to outstrip the supply of skilled workers by three-to-one. Many employers will be forced to import workers from other countries.

Why is there a shortage of skilled craft workers?  We look down on such jobs.

My father inadvertently perpetuated that attitude.  As a World War II vet, he used the GI bill to become an electrician. Even though he rose to the rank of master electrician and made a good living for his family, he pushed his kids to go to college. Despite his accomplishments, he felt a trade school education was second best.

True, studies show that, over a lifetime, college degrees translate into higher incomes.  But as they say, the devil is in the details.

First, you have to factor in the crushing burden of student loans that must be repaid.  Currently, America’s college grads are shouldering $1.2 trillion in college tuition debt.  Secondly, the advantage of a college degree depends on your major.  Graduates with math, engineering, science and technical degrees fare better than those who majored in the liberal arts.

And unconditional taxpayer-funded tuition subsidies have allowed universities — and students — to indulge in majors that bear little relationship to real world career prospects.

For example, University of Connecticut students can earn both a bachelor's and master’s degree in puppetry. At Plymouth State University, you can earn a degree in Adventure Education, studying canoe paddling fundamentals, wilderness expedition and whitewater kayaking.

Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” says we need to hit the reset button on higher education.

"If we are lending money that ostensibly we don't have to kids who have no hope of making it back in order to train them for jobs that clearly don't exist, I might suggest that we've gone around the bend a little bit. Many of the best opportunities that exist today require a skill, not a diploma.”

To expand those opportunities, Rowe founded the mikeroweWORKS Foundation that awards trade school and apprenticeship program scholarships to young people who show both an interest and an aptitude for mastering a specific trade.  The Foundation has created more than $1.6 million in education scholarships with schools around the country.

Ironically, in the real world, one of those trade school graduates will be called to the apartment of a struggling college grad to fix their plumbing for $200 an hour.

Don Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

 

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