It’s almost graduation day. Another class of high school graduates is weeks away from finishing their studies and preparing to either enter the workforce, or go off to college. With both the new construction and remodeling industries sorely in need of skilled tradesman, what portion of this graduating class can we expect to make their way into those career choices?

The answer isn’t promising and it’s also the reason why the hiring situation for door and window manufacturers can be classified as a “drought.”

Over the last few months, the severity of this situation hit home for me. I ordered some new windows last winter, right before the holidays. The nine that I was replacing were in bad shape, so I wanted them to be installed before the harshest part of winter came upon us. One of my customers offered me a great factory-direct deal, but I couldn’t find an installer in my area to tackle the project. I reached out to a second window company I know, and they quoted me a good price for installation. They have their own installers but told me that because they currently have a shortage of laborers, the earliest I could get my windows installed was March. Finally, I went to one of my smallest customers, who not only makes his own windows, but also installs them. I don’t mean the same company. I mean the same guy – the owner!

He was able to measure, make and install my windows within two weeks. How? Well, he is a very skilled craftsman who does it all himself. First, he came out to measure for the windows. He then went back to the shop and made them himself, including the insulating glass. Finally, he showed up at my house and did the installation himself. The man is truly a one-person operation! The only additional labor that he had to depend on was a sub-contractor, a semi-skilled laborer, to assist him with the installation. I asked him why he does this all himself, and he said that he cannot find and keep skilled workers, so he downsized his business. “I make fewer windows, have very low overhead, zero people issues, and it is done right,” he said. This is an extreme example, no doubt, but a great illustration of the issue at hand and how one person has chosen to deal with it.

A recent survey by tool manufacturer Ridgid reveals that a scant 6% of high school students hope to have a future career in the skilled trades—including those defined as plumbers, carpenters, electricians, heating, ventilation or air conditioning installers, or repair people.

The survey, conducted by KeyStat Marketing and Greenfield Online, found that young adults generally had a poor image of careers in the skilled trades with 37% believing that working in an office was more respected than working with one’s hands and 25% perceiving that skilled trades jobs were “old fashioned.”

Well it’s a fact that many skilled tradesmen are retiring, and an insufficient number of young people are choosing this profession to replace them. Therefore, these jobs are now in high demand and pay really well. So, if making a very respectful wage right out of high school is old fashioned, then I say: So be it. Choosing a career as a skilled tradesman can pay off early in life. Let’s illustrate.

I know one young man who spent his last two years of high school in vocational training, with a specialization in construction technology. Local construction firms conduct job interviews at the vocational tech school, and he was recruited by a construction firm late in his junior year. This young man was offered an apprenticeship called “School to Work” during his senior year, through which he worked after school for a construction firm each day during his senior year. Upon graduation, at the end of May, he already has a full-time job offer with this same company and will be starting at $60,000 per year, with health care insurance and 401K his first year out of school.

I decided to do a quick spreadsheet comparing his 10-year earnings versus someone going to college, perhaps getting a business degree, who graduates and then gets a “more respectable” job working in an office. The construction tech worker earns $60,000 right out of the gate, with a modest 5% per-year raise and no college debts or expenses. He or she earns a cumulative total of $754,000 during their first 10 years after graduating. Compare this to a college-bound graduate who earns nothing over the next four years, as they study for a business degree, accumulating $30,000 per year in college debt. When they graduate, those who go the college route start a “more respectable” office job at the same $60,000 per year. However, they must also pay back $12,000 per year toward their college loans. They also get a 5%-per-year raise. Midway through 2029, the construction tech worker has earned a cumulative total of $754,000 versus the college graduate who nets a cumulative total of only $335,000 after paying back their college loans. At this point, the college grad is $419,000 behind in cumulative net earnings compared to the construction tech worker, and still owes $48,000 in college loans. Even if the college grad gets a full ride and has no college debt, the cumulative difference in earnings after year 10 is still $347,000 in favor of the construction tech worker.

This purpose here is not to diminish the value of college education, but rather to illustrate that college isn’t for everybody. If someone has an aptitude for the skilled trades, then he or she should be encouraged to pursue that route. Such a path can prove to be equal or even more financially rewarding than the college route. Our society needs to change the perception that skilled tradespeople are “old fashioned.” Young people who choose professions in the skilled trades should be given the respect they deserve, so that more young people will go this route and end the drought.

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