Skilled Trades — The New American Dream?
I was 5-years-old, taking a nap under the front sales counter, when I awoke to my parent’s broken English thanking another customer for their business. It was almost time for the much dreaded mayonnaise sandwich, but maybe today we could afford to squeeze in a slice of bologna and who knows, maybe some processed cheese. The year was 1985 and the customers were few and far between at Gaucho Sweaters and Jackets in Great Falls, Virginia, the first business my parents would open after arriving in the United States.
My parents came to this county with nothing more than a couple dollars, a work Visa that would eventually lead to our Naturalization, the word of some investors, but most importantly, the mindset that failing and going back to Argentina was not an option. Unfortunately, Gaucho would fizzle out within the next 6–7 years causing my father to rely on his handy skills to supplement income. During those years, he was a painter, a carpenter, and a mechanic…a series of skilled trades that were increasingly an afterthought in America since the early 1950’s exponential growth of higher education. If anybody endorses higher education, it is my family, however, we must start to recognize that college is not a one size fits all approach to success.
Have you ever really taken the time to ask a plumber, or an electrician, or a mechanic what their rates are per hour? For those that are qualified and truly skilled, do not be surprised to learn that they earn more than you do on a per hour basis and if the individual is business savvy, do not be shocked to learn that they flat out make more than you and your Bachelor’s Degree. “Blue Collar” careers pay family-sustaining wages. Last year, NPR stated that the average electrician makes $5,000 more than the average college graduate. Keep in mind that most electricians do not have to pay back debt incurred to earn a four-year degree.
Case in point, the trades industry employs professionals including mechanics, plumbers, electricians, welders, carpenters, and HVAC technicians. They do everything from keeping your local government fleet equipment on the roads to welding oil pipelines zigzagging world. Bloomberg Business recently reported that the average age of welder was 55 years old in 2014 and the American Welding Society estimates a shortage of 290,000 welders by 2020. When those folks retire, they take with them decades of experience and invaluable knowledge which employers can only hope to replace. It will take years for their replacements to achieve their level of skill and knowledge.
Somewhere along the American story, learning to work with one’s hands took a back seat to college and computers. Perhaps it was around the same time where America began to export manufacturing and reduce investments in such things as shop class and apprenticeships? Service calls could get pretty expensive when your washing machine needs routine maintenance and the only people qualified to repair it live in another country. I guess no one thought about that unintended consequences of subcontracting so many industries abroad. Sure, I’ll be honest, I probably would not have thought about that either, but this is the reality we must deal with, quickly.
So what are we to do? We must stare reality in the face and offer some unconventional wisdom. We need to continue to encourage our Government leaders to increase funding of shop class, apprenticeships, and technical colleges. We must acknowledge that there is a significant portion of the skilled trades that operate in the shadows, illegal immigrants, solving our immigration issues could alleviate many other issues. We must take it upon ourselves to put on the hat of recruiters and talk with young men and women in high schools, community centers, churches, and explain to them the skilled trades needs them now more than ever. It would help to explain the leaps and bounds the trades have taken from the days of our fathers had to decide what to do after high school. And quite possibly the hardest of all minds to change, we need to convince parents that choosing a “blue collar” career is nothing to be ashamed of and quite possibly, the new American Dream.