At the start of my son’s junior year in high school, I tagged along with him to meet with his school career counselor to discuss post-graduation plans. After the initial hellos, the first question out of the counselor’s mouth was, “So, what college are you thinking of?” My son sat there looking stunned.
Although he had heard this question before from the adults in his life, each time was painful. His only reply was, “I don’t know yet.”
That was two years ago. At the time, I remember being frustrated with Josh’s indecision: He has to go to college in order to get a good job. At least that was my mindset back then.
I now realize that college is not for everyone. There are many vocational opportunities out there for young adults. However, our schools and society do not seem to encourage this path. As this next generation of children begins to reach adulthood, the push to get a four-year college degree is seen as the only path to career success. Any other direction is frowned upon.
With so much of our youth heading off to college, a huge void has opened and is growing in the pool of craft labor. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are currently about 600,000 vacancies in the construction industry. By 2028, that number is expected to grow to 704,000. Not only are young students not seeking futures in the trades, the older generation of skilled workers is retiring or dying.
Construction work needs to escape its simplistic image of a guy in a hard hat swinging a hammer. Yes, we still need carpenters, plumbers, electricians and welders. All need to know how to use their tools. But with the rapid growth of integrated construction technologies, more modern opportunities are opening up. Many involve digital toolboxes and the chance to learn to manage work and supervise others. Yet typical high schools are not encouraging high school graduates to go down this career path.
Why? I believe parents and teachers attach a stigma to blue-collar jobs. I have attended many a barbecue where the adults brag about their kids at Stanford or USC. It makes a parent feel like a failure when you talk about your son, the welder. Here in California, where I am based, schools receive funds based on test scores. Shop programs have become largely irrelevant. The schools’ priorities are firmly focused on college readiness and standardized test success. Vocational programs take a backseat.
I have three kids. My first two enjoyed high school, earned good grades and decided to go to college. But my third kid, Josh, was just bored in his general education classes, and his grades suffered.
“Why do I need to learn how a plant cell works?” he asked me during a discussion of academic study and its value. I couldn’t answer.
After that unsuccessful visit to the school counselor, Josh discovered something: metal shop. He loved working with his hands and tools, and he thrived. With that class and others providing him a solid direction, his other grades improved.
Now I see that his path to a great-paying, satisfying job will not only be shorter than that of a typical college graduate. It will be virtually debt free. Good thing for me, too, because our family had spent a lot paying for Josh’s older sister’s out-of-town state college. Eventually, we decided to bring her back home.
In comparison, the cost of a trade school could only be a few thousand dollars for the entire program. Josh’s junior college, from which he will emerge in two years with an associate degree in welding and no debt, has a program that pays for his first two years of tuition. And he was lucky. His high school was one of the few that offered any type of vocational classes. Through this training, Josh was able to study CAD engineering, machine controls and vehicle fabrication, in addition to welding.
So how do we fill 600,000 vacancies in construction craft jobs? As the cost of college rises and the number of quality white-collar jobs diminishes, many young people will begin to look into the trades. But so far, we have failed the high school graduates who have no desire to attend a typical college or university. Let’s bring shop class back to high school and cut out the peer pressure for a typical college education. It’s the best thing for many young people and their families.
Michael Zinniger is a content writer for Gearflow.com, an online construction equipment and parts marketplace. He can be reached at 760-525-0138.
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