College isn’t for everyone and there are strong reasons to support students who decide to opt out of the college track and get jobs in the trades.
A 2017 study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found between 1991-2015: “Good jobs in non-manufacturing blue-collar industries, such as construction and transportation, increased in 38 states. North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah experienced the most robust job growth in non-manufacturing blue collar industries, as well as in the total number of blue-collar jobs.”
The growth has been uneven, though. The study says 12 states -particularly in the Northeast- lost those kinds of good jobs. California, Texas and Florida have had the largest gains.
The study says there are 3,477,000 people have good-paying construction jobs in the U.S. and earn a median salary of $59,000.
Bob Ernst, president of FBN Construction, a high-end construction firm in Boston, said the labor shortage has forced him to increase salaries to retain good talent. “We’ve had to increase salaries significantly in the last five years,” Ernst said. “We generally do what we have to do to keep them. Some of our skilled carpenters are making $80,000 to $110,000 a year.”
Worse, Bob said the workforce skews heavily toward middle-aged people and there aren’t enough young people getting into the trades to eventually replace them. As the labor shortage intensifies, it will push salaries even higher. “We have management level positions made up of people who came from the trades and learned how to run projects,” Ernst said. “There is a career path. One of the reasons I grew FBN is to create a vertical ladder for my employees to climb.”
Construction managers earn $101,000 annually on average, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS).
Shawn McCadden earned a bachelor’s degree before becoming a residential contractor. Later he sold the business and became a consultant, teaching contractors all over the U.S. how to remodel their businesses. He said he recommends pursuing a career in the trades, but cautions young people to be selective about which companies they choose to work for. “There are companies that don’t use the proper safety equipment, don’t have workman’s compensation policies and treat people like they’re disposable,” McCadden said. “A lot of companies use workers and don’t invest in advancing the skills of their employees. Find a company that will commit to advancing your career and show you the path to get there.”
A bachelor’s degree now costs more than $100,000, on average, sometimes much more. In 2016, 42% of graduates borrowed money to pay for college, according to the Federal Reserve. On average those students graduated owing between $20,000 and $25,000. Many grads are still paying these loans off well into their 30s.
A student who enters the trades right out of high school will have no student debt and four (or more) years’ work experience when their college-bound classmates are ready to enter the workforce. With a little ambition and a little luck, they could have enough experience to move into the management side of the business before the physical work takes its toll on their body.
Plus, an active job like working in the trades can help keep you fit, saving you the time and expense of going to the gym. Building and repairing homes is also much more mentally engaging than many people think.
Of course, the trades are also a good fit for many recent college grads who decide not to work in their field of study, too (like me).
Remodeling spending is at all all time high and expected to continue to climb through 2019. The construction labor shortage is expected to amplify in the coming years, resulting in even more, better opportunities for young people interested in the trades. Young people who work to develop their skills and become more than a nail-banger, can take advantage of the opportunity.
“If you think it’s bad now,” McCadden said. “Five to ten years from now it will be awful. It might soon be more lucrative to be a plumber than a doctor. Professional craftsmen are going to be few and far between. Demand has outstripped supply and it’s getting worse.”