Skilled trade jobs go unfilled in our robust economy

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Millions of college graduates find themselves saddled with crushing debt and more than a third of them won’t be working in their chosen profession. Many will be working for low wages.

Meanwhile, there are millions of high-paid jobs available in the skilled trades – electricians, plumbers, manufacturing workers, pipefitters, mechanics, appliance repair, computer techs, medical assistants and welders. Known as blue-collar jobs, they routinely pay $45,000 to $65,000 a year or more. According to Salary.com, the average heavy equipment operator in Seattle earns more than $95,000 a year in wages and benefits.

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. To compete, many employers are not only providing scholarships, but even paying students to attend a technical school and offering internships. 

They are stepping up their recruitment of military men and women leaving active duty because of their experience, training and dependability. 

Why is there a shortage of skilled craft workers? One reason, we’ve tended to look down on those jobs. 

My father, for example, 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 may 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 which often take years to repay. In fact, the average student loan debt continues to grow. (Class of 2016 graduates was $37,172, up six percent from the previous year).

Americans now owe more than $1.48 trillion in student loans, which is spread out among 44 million borrowers. That’s $620 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt, the website Student Loan Hero recently reported. Now, the average monthly student loan payment (for borrower aged 20 to 30 years) is $351.

In many cities housing costs alone have escalated to the point that grads are either forced to share cramped quarters or move back home. As of June 2017, average apartment rent in Seattle was $2,210 a month.

The Gazette-Review in Minneapolis pegs the average 2018 college grad will earn $50,000 annually. 

“However, one should take this number with a great deal of salt. A diploma alone won’t secure this sort of salary in many cases, as there are many other factors to take into account,” it reported last week. Graduates with math, engineering, science and technical degrees fare better than those who majored in the liberal arts.

Mike Rowe, who hosted the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” says we need to hit the reset button on higher education. He argues we should not be lending money to students who have no hope of making it back. Rowe believes many of the best career opportunities 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.

It doesn’t make sense for our country to primarily focus on college education when half of our career opportunities are for skilled workers. 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 C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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