Twenty years ago, I participated in a program sponsored by Georgia Appleseed to survey public educators as to the reasons for students dropping out of high schools in the metropolitan Atlanta area. At the time, the graduation rate within the City of Atlanta was hovering around 55%, meaning the dropout rate was 45%. We traveled to multiple public high schools and interviewed hundreds of teachers, guidance counselors, and principals on the “frontline” of the battle to keep young people in school. While causes varied based upon individual circumstances, there was one common problem identified by virtually every educator we interviewed. The problem – educators were required to prepare all students to attend college, without the ability to steer students to attend “trade schools” and learn a construction trade that would very likely provide immediate employment upon graduation.
Somewhere along the line, it seems society determined that a college degree was synonymous with success, whereas an education in the skilled construction trades was frowned upon. The problems that public educators identified twenty years ago has now come to roost upon society. Nowadays we have a shortage of skilled trades, including carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and HVAC technicians. Skilled tradesmen are in short supply, and often demand and receive annual incomes more than $100k. Meanwhile, we have a glut of college educated young people who appear to have difficulty finding suitable employment and face enormous debts for a college education they cannot use. Perhaps, some of these young people should consider pursuing a “trade school” education whereby they will almost be guaranteed employment.
Currently, nearly 1 in 4 or 25% of construction workers are “baby boomers” age 55 or older who will certainly be slowing down if not seeking retirement within the decade. Most of these older workers occupy skilled trades and are amongst the most knowledgeable and productive in the industry. But even before the coming retirement of “baby-boomers” the construction industry faced tell-tale signs of a looming crisis. Throughout 2022, the construction industry averaged a record rate of 390,000+ job openings per month with a record unemployment rate of just 4.6%. While the influx of legal migrants may help fill the need for entry level construction laborers, 6 out of 10 or 60% of the job openings require skilled trades and licensure.
The need to recruit young people to attend “trade schools” and enter the skilled construction trades is at an all-time high. Yet there are limited public “trade schools” throughout the country and our educators remain bound to prepare all students to attend college and not pursue a career in the construction trades. I shall never forget the frustration one educator expressed to me twenty years ago when lamenting that a high school student had dropped out. She said he could use “his hands” to take apart, fix, and rebuild anything, but had neither the ability or desire to grasp, calculus, chemistry, or English literature. When will our society recognize the need to educate our young people in the skilled construction trades?