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Trending: We Need More Plumbers, Fewer College Grads

Trending: We Need More Plumbers, Fewer College Grads

“It’s a cultural rebuild.”

We’ve all heard the same advice: get good grades in high school and get a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree has become so common that a lot of people have entered graduate school to get a master’s or a PhD.

That push has led to a shortage of tradespeople, especially as those in jobs usually described as “blue collar work” grow older. So what do we do now? Some states have started to push more money to promote vocational education.

PBS NewsHour reported that California is one of those states:

Now California is spending $6 million on a campaign to revive the reputation of vocational education, and $200 million to improve the delivery of it.

“It’s a cultural rebuild,” said Randy Emery, a welding instructor at the College of the Sequoias in California’s Central Valley.

Standing in a cavernous teaching lab full of industrial equipment on the college’s Tulare campus, Emery said the decades-long national push for high school graduates to get bachelor’s degrees left vocational programs with an image problem, and the nation’s factories with far fewer skilled workers than needed.

“I’m a survivor of that teardown mode of the ’70s and ’80s, that college-for-all thing,” he said.

Research has shown that parents and high school students don’t understand the value in these jobs that range from welding to nursing:

The United States has 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year and don’t require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Georgetown center. People with career and technical educations are actually slightly more likely to be employed than their counterparts with academic credentials, the U.S. Department of Education reports, and significantly more likely to be working in their fields of study.

PBS interviewed Fernando Esparza, a mechanic for Evolution Fresh, as he takes “a class in industrial computing taught by a community college at a local manufacturing plant in the hope it will bump up his wages.” That plant is California Steel Industries, where “some supervisors without college degrees make as much as $120,000 a year.” The company said that electricians can make money into the six figures as well.

California Steel Industries has also chipped into the schools and state as a way to find workers due to the shortage:

With state budgets in constant flux, colleges and experts say it’s essential that companies help pay for educational programs that directly benefit them. While that kind of cooperation has been rare, Chaffey College’s InTech Center is an example of how it could work.

California Steel chipped in $2 million for the education center, which it leases to Chaffey for $5 per year, said Sandra Sisco, the school’s director of economic development. Other local companies and colleges have invested, too. The center served about 1,300 students in the past year and plans to grow, she said.

The steel company agreed to work with Chaffey mostly because it was having trouble finding enough trained workers, said Rod Hoover, its human resources manager. And if California Steel’s competitors benefit from the classes on the factory campus, many of which provide skills useful in steelmaking, so be it.

But Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, has been bringing attention to this for YEARS. In May, he hosted a video that asked why do we only glamorize expensive colleges:

“I can think of nine magazines off the top of my head who every year will rank the top colleges. None of them ever include a trade school. That’s where the pressure starts,” said Mike Rowe, unofficial spokesman for skilled work and trade jobs.

In March, Rowe spoke about a scholarship he gives out every year for those who want to learn a trade. He told Fox News:

“Every year, we do a work ethic scholarship,” explained the 55-year-old on “Fox & Friends” Tuesday. “It’s not huge, but we set aside five or six hundred grand and we put it in a pile and we invite people who want to learn a skill that’s actually in demand to make a case for themselves [such as] an essay, video, references.”

Each applicant must sign the S.W.E.A.T. (Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo) pledge, which means the person cannot “become a lazy, self-entitled drone who blames others for their troubles and expects to be taken care of.”

Rowe reminds people that these jobs are already available:

“If you want to weld, you’re going to work,” he explained. “We’ve trained a lot of kids, many of whom are making north of six figures. Carpentry, the construction trades — they’re all in demand right now… if you can really operate a welding torch, and you’re willing to travel, you’re going to kill it.”

Rowe acknowledged these jobs may not be someone’s “dream job,” but they should still attempt the work because who knows? Maybe it’ll be a fit. If anything, at least a new skill can be learned:

“If your whole model for job satisfaction is based on finding your ‘dream job,’ right – it’s a bit like going out in the world and looking for your soul mate,” he said. “It’s difficult. Find the thing that’s available, be great at it and then figure out how to love it […] You have to work. You have to own it.”


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A fine article for Labor Day! Women should be able to do some of these blue collar jobs as well since attitudes have changed. Also, maybe teachers and parents can get to enough inner city kids to give them a push toward a trade as opposed to a gang, gun and prison or grave. An extra benefit, hardly any debt should be needed to learn needed skills, unlike college with its “isms” and “studies” that pay little in the real world.

    JLSpeidel in reply to Whitewall. | September 5, 2017 at 1:30 pm

    I had an assistant that got out of the military and went to learn to weld. She is doing just fine and never had any issue finding a job. It helps that she is black.

My go to electrician says he can’t expand his company because of the lack of people who want to work.

    NavyMustang in reply to Old0311. | September 4, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    If you are a hard worker and competent, you will have so much work, you won’t know what to do.

    When I was in the USN, I was talking to a job boss on one of the ships in overhaul. He told me that they could not find a welder who was worth a damn. Finally, they found one and the welder was set. Good work, always available, and with a can do attitude. He never had to look for a job.

Recently, Oklahoma tried to pass a sales tax increase. It was pushed by the universities (Boren at OU) as giving K-12 teachers a raise. Once you looked at the actual distribution of the tax, the universities were getting the most, with no direction as to use of the new funds.

The vo-tech system was scheduled to get about 1% of the funds, if I remember correctly.

It was defeated though it would have had a better chance if more was directed to K-12 and vo-tech systems and keep the universities out of it.

This is why Im a fan of the Singaporean education system. If you are struggling at school they will take you out of the system and place you in to a polyptech type institution so you can learn a skill and be useful as an adult!

I keep telling my youngest that she would be better off learning a trade, like plumbing, so she can charge £100 an hour working when she wants instead of following me in to finance and having to work 24/7 at the whim of others.

    The problem with that education tracking system is that the government makes the decision as to your field of study – very much like the old Soviet system.

    Remember when they selected the best athletes to be trained for the Olympic teams? Likewise, the smart ones were tracked to be doctors and academics. Not smart, then off to the farms and factories.

      JLSpeidel in reply to Liz. | September 5, 2017 at 1:32 pm

      They actually used to test the muscle fibers of each athlete to find the best sport. Distance runners have a higher ratio of slow twitch fibers than your sprinters which have a higher ratio of the fast twitch. Think power vs endurance.

I’m afraid we’re pretty far down that hole.

In high school I took all the science classes, all the math classes, and all the shop classes. Not the way to be popular at parties, but they had some pretty cool stuff—engine lathes, of course, but also vertical mills and even an antique horizontal shaper. Heavy iron as far as the eye could see. And this was a backwoods school; we were so far out in the woods we didn’t even have a Chess Club.

I took a look at the old place a couple of years ago—not so much as a hammer in sight. Nobody there seemed to be oriented toward doing anything. Or even aware that such a thing was possible.

Sic transit stupor mundi. Not exactly what I’d call “progress”.

I went to a trade school back in 1978 about a year after I got out of the Marines. Six years later I was a journeyman electrician running my own sub-division for one of the largest engineering companies in Dallas Tx. Of course I think if I was going to do it over, I’d take the machinist courses. There’s a lot of good money in operating lathes and mills.

    Ragspierre in reply to robertsgunshop. | September 4, 2017 at 9:40 am

    Yep. A “manual” machinist is a rare bird these days of CNC machining.

    I’d recommend learning directional drilling. It has a lot more applications than just the oil field.

ScottTheEngineer | September 4, 2017 at 9:40 am

I’m an Electrical Engineer. I was talking the other day to one of the electricians at work that is getting ready to retire in 2 years. We both agreed that if we had to start all over we’d pick the same profession again. We’d never want to do anything else.
The feeling of accomplishment you get when your hit with a difficult technical problem and you solve it using skill and knowledge you’ve developed over the years is like a drug. You want more.
I’ve had this same conversation with many co-workers in different places around the country. Its universal from my perspective.

I have a fun job. I never really work.

    Years ago I worked in the IT department for a County government. The system manager was an electrical engineer. One day he was looking at job postings for the county and found out that a union electrician made more money than he did.

      Voyager in reply to Anchovy. | September 4, 2017 at 11:05 am

      Yes, but you have to remember, the sort of person who makes a good electrical (or any other type of) engineer, is the sort of person who doesn’t terribly care much that a good electrician is making more than they are.

      But, Engineering is the exception, rather than the rule among white collar jobs. Most good engineers are the sort of people who would be developing magnetodynamic plasma rockets in their garage, if they weren’t doing cool engineering at work, and their SO’s would probably not be overly thrilled with that, so they do engineering instead.

      ScottTheEngineer in reply to Anchovy. | September 4, 2017 at 7:20 pm

      The Union guys do pretty well and some of them actually deserve it. The problem is getting a union job. Unless you know someone its hard to get in. I didn’t, so I went to school.
      You always get paid what your worth. If I ever feel under-appreciated there are about 1000 other companies that are looking to hire me.
      I work on automated systems. Heavy on PLC’s communications safety systems and robotics.

I saw Mike Rowe speak at a convention center expo on advanced technologies a couple of years ago. He’s a very entertaining guy, with a funny and insightful routine centered around promoting skilled trades. Mike’s been banging the drum for several years, now, with respect to changing society’s prevailing view — often reinforced by media depictions — of skilled tradespeople as slovenly and unintelligent boors. Mike observed that, when one sees a plumber or similar tradesperson depicted in movies or on TV, the worker is typically shown wearing bulky overalls and showing some butt crack; a mocking depiction, played strictly for laughs.

Mike also said something that I agree with, something that’s more of a broad philosophical observation vis-a-vis technology — to wit, that, the ability to flush a toilet in one’s home (i.e. sanitation and sewage technology) is the flip side of sending a person to the moon. Our society is complacent and doesn’t appreciate the most basic technologies that allow us to live lives of comfort without swimming around in our own waste, let alone tech that puts a man on the moon or a powerful computer in one’s pocket.

I’ll also add that, to me, Mike Rowe is the anti-Michael Moore. Moore is a posturing, self-aggrandizing, hypocritical, histrionic and fatuous blowhard demagogue who lives like a king, but, who nonetheless claims legitimacy to agitate on behalf of the “working class,” and, who has made a handsome living doing absolutely nothing practical or constructive to facilitate job-creation or economic activity, except to vilify corporations and the people who run them.

Rowe is decidedly more apolitical (albeit, unafraid to defend his opinions when challenged) and actually helps to promote a worthwhile message that can be linked to meaningful economic activity and prosperity.

At least in Louisiana, the 9-12 schooling is becoming more geared toward the trades. We have one track that is intended for a 4-year university and one track that allows students to have one or more technical certifications when they get their diploma. It’ll be pretty good in another decade or so, I guess.

A big challenge is the reworking of the model of education that has developed over the last 30 or so years of banging the “college, college, college” drum. Even very large schools often only have one “shop” teacher and most of the old woodworking/electrical equipment was thrown out years ago and needs to be replaced.

A second challenge that is but recently being overcome is how students who are on the trades track absolutely destroy your school performance score in this state because they don’t care about ACT scores and usually score a 13-14. In the last two years, the state has developed an analogous test for entering trades, but it still isn’t really there yet. Principal’s jobs depend on those scores, so the money gets allocated to places to raise it.

    In Oklahoma County, high school students can go to the Vo-tech schools for free while still attending their regular school. So, at least the kids go to the shop which is up to date.

      Dathurtz in reply to Liz. | September 4, 2017 at 5:16 pm

      That’s a good idea. I think some schools here may do that, but none of the ones where I have taught do so. We may be able to work something out junior or senior year for the ones that can drive themselves.

“Some states have started to push more money to promote vocational education.”

I’m thinking that politicians and bureaucrats “promoting” one form of education over another is a big part of how we got into this mess in the first place.

Of the many, many college curricula and degrees available only a few prepare one for a prosperous economic career. If one wants to maximize one’s odds of having a prosperous post-colleg economic career oe should get one of those. If one wants to instead pursue some other ‘dream’ and also wants post-college economic prosperity one is rolling dice loaded against one. That;s OK is one accepts the odds, accepts oe is taking a huge chance, and has a solid plan B if that dnoesn’t work out.

Unfortunately our left-wing media deludes young people into thinking that if they pursue their ‘dream’ they will also be economically successfull and prosperous. The socialists tell them it can be so, if only they vote socialist. It’s all lies.

Mark Finkelstein | September 4, 2017 at 11:55 am

Reminds me of the old joke. Plumber hands homeowner his bill.

Homeowner: $175 an hour? That’s more than my doctor charges!

Plumber: I know. I used to be a doctor.

    That joke is not so far-fetched. I know a guy who used to be a vascular surgeon. He quit and started doing hair transplants in Beverly Hills. When I asked him why, he told me, “I work regular hours now, never get called in the middle of the night, don’t have to pay out millions in malpractice insurance, and I make more money.”

      And it is probably a cash basis office since that care is not covered by insurance. So no insurance clerk, quality control clerk, hassles with insurance negotiations, etc.

I’ve experienced both sides of this debate. My first job was as a machinist making $1.25 per hour (in 1964). I worked summers as a machinist while earning my BSEE. I just laugh when I hear how lucrative electrical engineering is, because I never earned more than $30 per hour in that profession. I was building nuclear power plants at the time, but I digress…

Ten years ago, not being able to find engineering work, I was working as a residential electrician making $14 per per hour (with no benefits). My helper was getting $10 per hour. Over the years I’ve worked in just about all the trades in between engineering jobs (plumbing, electrical, concrete, cabinetry, framing, roofing, HVAC…but not welding) I never made much money at any of them. The most I ever made as a machinist was $6 per hour, and I had to buy my own tools.

My point here is that the only tradesmen making six figures are either Union guys or the guys who have the license and own the business. When I was working as an electrician, the boss was charging $120 per hour for my helper and I, but only paying us $24. Get the picture? The guys actually doing the work don’t make squat.

LoneStarWhacko | September 4, 2017 at 5:17 pm

Plumbing is a good trade. Hire on as a helper. Make sure that the company you hire on with has good training. Apprenticeship is a great thing. File your papers as a Helper. Depending on your drive and intelligence, you will make a lot more money than a college boy. Plus, you’ll still have your manhood. No feminist nonsense. Get your Journeyman license, then immediately start studying for your Master license. Once you get that……60-250,000 a year. If you can go online for some business classes…’s the point, straight up…..there’s a real shortage of Testosterone nowadays…..but Plumbers can hold their heads high….. especially Service Plumbers….that’s where the big dogs hunt????

I work in a field where you don’t need any college. There aren’t any schools teaching our trade. It is all taught in house.
Think about those lines you drive between. That’s what we do.

Our guys make decent money and many have found this industry as a career. One of my highest paid foreman is 23 and has been doing this since he graduated from high school. He makes about 65k a year.