On May 1, the country celebrated National Skilled Trades Day to honor the contributions men and women working in the skilled trades make to our local, state and national economies and quality of life. These workers perform a variety of jobs that require specialized skills that are learned on-the-job, through apprenticeship programs, and at two-year colleges.
These occupations are frequently referred to as blue-color or hands-on jobs, implying that they typically involve physical effort to build, maintain, drive, assemble, repair, or administer the required activity.
Lingering beliefs about the undesirability of this work prevail despite the fact that the physical requirements and where it occurs have changed dramatically. Advanced manufacturing today does not look anything like the factories of days gone by. Truck and heavy equipment cabs are as comfortable as the interior of a luxury car. Skilled trades workers deal with sophisticated systems and equipment that require critical thinking, teamwork, and high levels of proficiency to navigate and operate.
Over the past 30-plus years, interest in skilled trade occupations has waned as a career. The increased emphasis on four-year college degrees as the preferred means to a middle-class lifestyle has resonated with a large share of the population.
People may mistakenly believe that jobs in the skilled trades are low paying. This is reinforced by studies that compare lifetime earnings at various different levels of educational attainment. Typically, the conclusion is that higher levels of education lead to higher earnings.
However, this is changing. Wages in many skilled trades fields are increasing significantly. Many Minnesota State College Southeast graduates will have the potential to earn into the six figures with a few years of experience on the job — or when they go to work for themselves.
The book “The Millionaire Next Door” (Stanley and Danko, 1996) comes to mind. Though it was published 25 years ago, it is relevant today. Based on extensive research, the authors concluded that most millionaires tend to be middle class, blue-collar workers – individuals who drive a truck and have their own business in the trades.
A value add for skilled workers is that many companies will pay for additional education for the motivated employee. This is often a matter of necessity for the employer to obtain the necessary skill sets for the company to operate and keep up with constantly changing technologies.
Growing numbers of skilled trade workers will soon retire. With less than 20% of high school graduates indicating an interest in a skilled trade occupation, the situation is becoming dire. The work that skilled trade workers do cannot be sent overseas. Opportunities for the next generation to find employment in these fields are expanding.
I experienced firsthand the value of the work done by skilled trades persons during a recent kitchen remodel at our home. The cabinetmakers and installers, the electricians and plumbers, and the plasterers did an outstanding job. I could not safely have done this work, nor would I have been able to do it to the degree of precision that was required. I was very willing to pay to have this work done. The final bill confirmed to me that there is money to be made in the trades!
Minnesota State College Southeast has the distinct honor and privilege to prepare many of our students for jobs in the skilled trade occupations. We need to encourage our educational systems to promote the skilled trades as worthy career choices that are on an equal basis with the professions and white-collar occupations.
So, belated hats off to the skilled trades and to the many workers who, very successfully, earn a living providing the products and services that we all enjoy and take for granted. Society will benefit when we give these occupations and skilled trades men and women the recognition and status that they deserve.