Without construction workers, we wouldn’t have buildings to live and work in. Without plumbers, we wouldn’t have running water with the twist of a faucet. Without electricians, we wouldn’t be able to illuminate a room with the flip of a switch.
The skilled trades make modern life possible. And yet, the nation is facing a shortage of skilled trade workers like none we’ve seen before.
Eighty percent of construction firms, for example, report having trouble finding the craft workers who make up the bulk of the construction workforce, according to a survey conducted by Autodesk and the Associated General Contractors of America.
So what does the shortage mean for our country, and more specifically, for employers and professionals who work in the skilled trades? We’ll break down the reasons behind the lack of workers, which trades will be most affected, and what can be done about the shortage.
Why is there a looming skilled trades shortage?
One of the biggest factors driving the skilled trades shortage is the mass retirement of workers in the Baby Boomer generation.
Boomers–or people born between 1946 and 1964–are employed in fields like construction, manufacturing and engineering in much higher proportions than their younger counterparts.
Recent data shows that the median age of welders is 40 and 42 for construction workers—largely in line with U.S. professions overall. Various industry sources indicate the mid-to-upper 40’s as the median age for machinists, heavy equipment operators and NDT (Nondestructive Testing) technicians. For comparison, the median age of information security analysts is 38, while for software developers, it’s 27.
The shift has been largely fueled by a push toward four-year college degrees as the “preferred” path for high school graduates.
Over the last two decades, there’s been an abundance of research citing college diplomas as a surefire ticket to higher earnings and lower unemployment, even though the attitudes of people who hold those degrees are mixed.
A mere 16% of Americans feel that a four-year degree prepares students ‘very well’ for a well-paying job in today’s economy.
Only half of college grads say their educational experience was ‘very useful’ in helping them develop skills and knowledge they could use in the workplace.
Another factor exacerbating the skilled trades shortage is the nation’s aging infrastructure. Roads, bridges, waterways and airports, for example, have been only marginally maintained over the last 20 years, and now the government is scrambling to snatch up qualified repair workers who can help prevent a catastrophic infrastructure collapse.
Congressional leaders have set the theoretical price tag to repair our crumbling infrastructure at a mind-boggling $2 trillion over 25 years.
Finally, there’s the fact that even in the face of a labor shortage, the industries that call for skilled workers continue to grow.
Construction, for example, is still booming nationwide, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting faster-than-average growth in the building sector over the next ten years. The numbers for electricians and ironworkers are similar.
When is it coming?
The fact of the matter is, the skilled trades shortage is here now and it’s getting more acute each day. According to numbers from the National Electrical Contractors Association, for example, 10,000 electricians retire from the field each year, but only 7,000 new ones join it.
For welders, the figures are even more daunting. One estimate predicts we’ll see a shortage of 400,000 welders by 2024–that’s the size of the population of the entire city of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
For workers, this means we’re in the midst of a period of unprecedented opportunity to break into the skilled trades and have your pick of high quality jobs. For employers, it means the playing field will likely remain highly competitive to win the best workers for years to come.
Is there a way to fix it?
It’s not all bad news on the skilled trades front. The tide has been turning in recent years, thanks in no small part to skyrocketing student loan debt. With the average personal student loan burden hovering at a crippling $37,693 in 2021, educators and advisors have begun praising the merits of careers in the skilled trades once again.
Here are a few ways we can collectively work to bolster the ranks in the skilled trades even further.
PROFESSIONAL TRAINING PROGRAMS
In professional training programs, employers team up with educators to establish company-sponsored training offerings like apprenticeships.
A prospective worker enrolls in the program and is paid to work and learn at the same time, then is eligible for employment with the company upon successful completion of the program.
In one such example in Philadelphia, a low-income housing association partnered with a local developer to launch an apprenticeship program that gives young workers hands-on preparation for skilled trade jobs on the developer’s projects.
There’s also the American Aerospace Technical Academy (AATA), which features the only NDT apprenticeship program approved by the US Department of Labor.
GREATER FOCUS ON ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION
When well-meaning educators began steering students toward four-year degrees as the be-all, end-all of professional life in the 70’s and 80’s, it came with an unintended consequence: a steep dropoff in enrollment in trade schools and other vocational programs.
But the United States now has some 30 million jobs that pay $55,000 a year or more and don’t require a bachelor’s degree, proving that there’s not just one educational path to success.
More guidance counselors and other authority figures in education have begun working to increase the profile of trade schools as a viable alternative to four-year schools. In 2017, the state of California launched a $6 million campaign to revive the reputation of vocational education, and other states have followed suit.
Many companies and professional organizations, like unions, have embraced skilled trades mentorship for its many merits. Mentorship pairs younger workers with more seasoned ones for on-the-job training and one-on-one personal/professional development coaching.
Students who have a mentor as part of an apprenticeship program are more likely to both complete the program and get a subsequent job in the field.
The Institute for Workplace Skills reports that 82% of apprentices enrolled in its mentorship programs complete trade certifications and go on to earn progressive wage increases and promotions within the companies that trained them.
There’s been a major push in recent years to increase exposure to careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields among younger students, and STEM jobs have flourished as a result. Why not do the same for jobs in the skilled trades?
A study by Jobs for the Future found that students participating in skilled trades classes not only gain valuable technical skills and work experience, but also the academic and personal skills needed to succeed in whatever path they choose after high school–trade related or not.
Some opt to begin earning money in their chosen trade while still in high school, which is an excellent option particularly for students in disadvantaged areas.
What skilled trades are most in danger?
In the skilled trades staffing deficit, not all fields will feel the impact equally. According to staffing firm Adecco USA, construction and extraction jobs will bear the biggest brunt of the shortage, with Boomers vacating an estimated five million jobs in those fields.
In addition to the construction jobs being left open by retirees, the sector will add an estimated 81,000 new jobs by 2029, all of which also need workers to fill them.
Electricians, welders and pipefitters will be heavily impacted as well, with shortages of 543,000, 403,000 and 392,000 workers, respectively.
Which skilled trades are safe?
While it’s not entirely accurate to say any trades are “safe” from the shortage, some industries are more insulated than others due to a mix of fewer people leaving the profession and slower overall job growth.
Electrical engineers, industrial engineers and heating and cooling are on the lower end of the shortage spectrum. Still, each of these fields can expect to see gaps toting up to several hundred thousand workers each.