CategoriesCollege Alternative Careers Skills Gap

The traditional trajectory of pursuing a college education as the primary path to a successful career is being challenged in today’s rapidly evolving job market. With the convergence of demographic shifts and economic demands, it’s becoming increasingly evident that college is no longer the sole route to professional fulfillment and financial stability. Instead, the skilled trades sector is gaining recognition for its vital role in addressing the persistent skills gap, offering a valuable alternative path to success for individuals from all backgrounds. 

The Current Dilemma: Attracting Gen Z and Millennials to the Trades 

The workforce is facing a critical dilemma: a shortage of skilled workers, particularly evident in sectors like construction, plumbing, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC-R) and electrical work. The construction industry, for example, is facing a shortage of roughly 650,000 workers. Demographic factors, including declining birth rate and the aging population have contributed to this imbalance, making it increasingly challenging for employers to attract the younger generations. Gen Z and Millennials often prioritize technology-driven careers or remote work, overlooking the lucrative financial opportunities and rapid technological advancements in the trades. It’s time to spotlight the use of innovation and technology from 3D printing to robotics making the trades a vibrant, dynamic, and rewarding career path for young talent. 

Dispelling Misconceptions: The Lucrative Nature of the Trades

Contrary to popular belief, the trades offer competitive pay and ample opportunities making it a lucrative career choice for both men and women. According to the US Bureau of Labor, the number of open jobs for plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters over the next decade will average about 42,600 each year. The annual average wage for this position was $65,190 as of 2022, while the top 10% made over $101,190 annually. The construction industry pays 80% more than the average non-farm job in the United States.

Educational Alternatives: Trade Schools and Vocational Education

Young people are encouraged to explore the trades as a viable career option, including participating in high school work-study programs. Trade and vocational schools offer the necessary skills and training for students fresh out of high school to enter the workforce and achieve financial stability. Careers like plumbing, electrical, heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration are not only recession-resistant but also cannot be outsourced overseas. In addition, trade school programs typically last two years or less, providing hands-on education that prepares students for entry-level positions or apprenticeships without accumulating significant student debt – a refreshing alternative to traditional college degrees.

Debunking Stigmas: The Advancements in Safety and Technology

The trades have long been perceived as physically demanding, dirty, and even dangerous. However, significant strides have been made in tools, workplace safety and procedures. While the safety risk and level of exertion surpass that of a typical office job, advancements in personal protective equipment and standard operating procedures have largely eliminated these stigmas. We no longer rely on brute strength to lift heavy components to dizzying heights. The industry now utilizes cranes, skyjacks, fall protection harnesses, and emerging technologies to prioritize safety and offer programs to foster physical and mental wellbeing. The industry has evolved significantly, ensuring a safer, more sustainable work environment.

The Rise of Apprenticeships: A Path to Hands-On Learning

Today, more and more U.S. companies are turning to high school students to fill skilled job openings, providing them with practical, on-the-job training. This shift is indicative of a broader trend. About 214,000 individuals aged 16 to 24 were engaged in apprenticeships in 2022, more than double the amount from a decade ago. By combining hands-on learning with paid work experience, these programs set individuals up for long-term success, equipping them with industry-specific skills and mentorship opportunities. Apprenticeships also address skill gaps, provide a pathway to certification, and offer flexibility and adaptability, making them an attractive option for students and employers alike.

Breaking Barriers: Women in the Trades

The trades industry is witnessing a welcome shift, with more women joining the profession. According to BLS, the number of women in trades hit a record high of 314,000 in 2021, more than 30% increase over five years, while the number of female apprentices more than doubled from 2014 to 2022. Despite historical strides, the skilled trades sector remains largely untapped by women. 

As the importance of gender diversity in trades gains recognition, expect to see a significant surge in the number of tradeswomen in the near future. With the high cost of college education posing a barrier for many young women, the trades offer a promising and accessible alternative.

Seizing the Opportunity

In a world where the demand for skilled labor is surging and the traditional narrative of career success is evolving, it’s imperative to rethink our approach to education and workforce development. Let’s embrace alternative paths to success and ensure a vibrant and inclusive future for our children. 


Michael LaCrosse is CEO of Medford Wellington.

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