Forecast for the Future: The Decline of Skilled Trades

If you work in any of the industries we group together as “the trades,” you may have noticed a disturbing trend. While it’s easy to find grizzled and grey-haired workers, there aren’t many young people entering the industry to replace them. Each year older workers age out of the industry and leave a gap that […]
Shane Hoefer

Written By Shane Hoefer

On November 25, 2021
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If you work in any of the industries we group together as “the trades,” you may have noticed a disturbing trend. While it’s easy to find grizzled and grey-haired workers, there aren’t many young people entering the industry to replace them. Each year older workers age out of the industry and leave a gap that goes unfilled. Tradesmen like plumbers can easily make six-figure salaries, but for whatever reason, the jobs aren’t attracting the youth. Why is that? As a leading trades business coach, here are some of the key factors that I see contributing to this decline.

Perception

One theory is that young people today are put off by the perception of manual labor jobs. There’s a real stigma that pervades our society and educational system that looks down on people who work with their hands. This prevents kids from seeking jobs in countless industries, from professional kitchens, construction, fabrication, or repair. These jobs often require significant skill, training, and ingenuity, but despite that, young people steer away from them in favor of jobs that require college, like coding.

While some may decry the younger generation for lack of work ethic, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Americans today work more than any other nation, even in offices. A more likely cause might be a lack of experience. Shop classes and home economics classes have been cut from curriculums across the country, and fewer students ever get to try their hand at building, fabricating, or making something with their own hands.

Some employers are raising wages for trainees in an attempt to attract new, young employees. Others are piloting apprenticeship programs that take trainees from completely inexperienced workers all the way to skilled plumbers who are ready to get certified. In spite of this, many employers still struggle to find suitable applicants. A report from the Manhattan Institute estimates that 88% of manufacturers are struggling to find skilled workers to fill employment gaps.

A Fallen Demand?

With the rise of robotics and increasing automation, it’s easy to point at technology eliminating the need for skilled trades workers. But is that true? Research says no. More than half of the ten fastest-growing industries are in the skilled trades. These industries are growing and fueling the economy, so where are the workers?

Vacancies in the skilled trades are hardest to fill, with some half a million manufacturing jobs remaining open each year. Automation has done little to fill this gap. Investment in automation has dropped off in the last decade, and the degree of automation has only risen from 18% to 32%. The most pressing need in these industries is manpower. Currently, only 150,000 apprenticeships for skilled trades are started each year. If the U.S. had the same per capita rate of apprenticeships as nations like France, Germany, or Switzerland, that number could be nearly 3 million. Unlike the U.S., these nations have educational systems that actually promote the trades as a viable option.

Where’s the Money?

As little as we like to discuss it, another reason for the decline in the trades may simply be a matter of money and benefits. While the average tech worker can expect to make above $70,000, the average salary for a skilled worker is slightly above half of that. Additionally, workers in tech and other office jobs can expect shorter working weeks, flexible time off, and more competitive benefits. For young people looking to start a family, it makes better financial sense to take a job that pays more and lets them spend more time with their kids. Why would anyone take a job roofing for $20/hour when they can take a job doing tech support in an air-conditioned office for the same amount?

The unfortunate reality for the trades is that our business follows the same laws of economics as anything else. In an economy where employers are begging for employees, people have the ability to weigh their options and take what seems best. Jobs in the trades are often difficult, sweaty, dangerous, or dirty. Employees expect to be compensated for the physical difficulty and risk. To meet this expectation, incentives like sign-on bonuses or bonuses at the end of projects can attract people looking for financial security. Flexible time off policies and benefits can also attract prospective employees.

Marketing Matters

Lastly, the skilled trades have a marketing gap compared to other industries. While tech companies or even the military recruit heavily in high schools, on the internet, or on TV, when was the last time you saw a local contractor at a high school job fair? Or advertising positions on a billboard? To get new employees, people in the trades need to invest in recruiting talent and then nurturing it to the top. As long as more attractive job offers exist, it’s going to be difficult to retain bodies when they get a better bid elsewhere. The more we take care of our employees, the easier it will be to find and keep them.

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