For the past few decades, culture has created a new norm in which youth are funneled straight from high school to college, rarely considering any other options, despite what is best suited for the individual.
Profiling and stereotypes about people involved in trades were barriers because trade work was considered dirty, according to Eric Peralez, training director at the Central Texas Chapter of the Independent Electrical Contractors in a recent SXSW EDU presentation. Yet, it’s irrational when data shows that 60% of college freshmen end up dropping out, and on top of that, 30% who graduate end up not using their degree.
A 2021 Education Data Initiative study reports that the average debt for a four-year bachelor’s degree is $28,800. That’s quite a bit of debt to rack up when the degree isn’t used, and when paid opportunities exist that offer career growth and good pay straight from high school.
Peralez is currently running an apprenticeship program for 600 students that offers a number of very appealing benefits, such as starting pay significantly above minimum wage, a defined career path, benefits like 401K and vacation, opportunities and skill development, no testing requirements for SAT or ACT, and in most cases, no school debt.
On US News and World Reports list of 25 of the best jobs that don’t require a college degree published earlier this year, four of the 25 are part of the construction trade. So, why does anyone hesitate?
Melaina Wilkin serves as the continuing education coordinator at Austin Community College and explains the factors that converged to develop this anti-trade work culture.
First, with no child left behind as an influencing factor, trades classes were dropped from schools.
Then, when the recession hit in 2008, remodeling and construction activity dried up, causing a loss of 1.5 million skilled laborers. After the recession, only 600,000 came back, leaving a shortage of 900,000 skilled workers. Plus, the ones who survived were doing all they could to get by and not taking on apprentices or passing skills on to the next generation.
On top of that, the construction industry is defined by a lot of family legacy, but children with parents in the field saw all the issues and challenges, causing them to avoid the industry as a viable career path.
Changing The Culture
Barry Bacom is the principal at Austin-area Lockhart High School and has been working on changing the structure of school programs to create more trade opportunities for students. He is looking at the industries that offer high wages, that are in high demand, and that need high skill sets, and working backwards to develop the programs.
While Bacom recognizes that it’s partially about changing the mindset about college being the only path, he also emphasizes that it’s not just if you study, but what you study. He directs students towards paths that will offer a job instead of chasing a degree that may have very few job opportunities.
Peralez points out that in the trade, there is a lot of on the job training, creating an earn while you learn education model, resulting in progress upwards in skills, advanced technical knowledge, and higher wages.
At his school, Bacom is actually revising the roles and responsibilities of the guidance counselors to educate the students and the parents on trade opportunities. Currently many schools require guidance counselors to have two very diverse skill sets: one emotional, responsive services and one academic guidance, like a CCMR or college, career and military readiness coordinator.
Bacom has separated these skill sets into two different roles so that the academic counselor can focus solely on shepherding students from eighth grade to post-secondary, and the guidance counselor can focus strictly on responsive services.
At the same time that there can be structural changes, Wilkin suggests schools change the language they use to be more sensitive to emphasizing the value of trades and not the negative ideas that have built up around them.
She also suggests creating partnerships and advisory boards by working with local trades groups and community colleges. Finally, another easy win is separating student focused events to give students room to explore. College day, career day and job fairs should all be exclusive events, not a combination of everything at one time on the gym floor.
Adam Hoots is the lean construction shepherd at Construction ACHE Solutions, serves on the board of the Skilled Trades Alliance, and just happens to know everyone within the workforce development space. He is one of the industry’s most passionate ambassadors and loves that everything around us starts with a skilled trades worker.
He presents to schools frequently and starts his presentations to students by discussing how everything is tied into the construction trade—infrastructure, roads, sanitary, data, lights, comfort. Then, he talks about the rich opportunity.
“There is no other place where you can have a brain and bucket of tools and you can start your own business,” Hoots said. “In the trades, there is an earn while you learn mentality. Experiential learning many times is the best way to build knowledge and capabilities. It uses the learning pyramid—you are involved more and more to the point that you are actually teaching things, which can lead to up to 95% retention.”
There also are multiple paths to get where you are going in the trades.
“You can go to college and get a degree and you might end up in project management,” Hoots said. “You also can go from high school and get a hands-on experience while you are getting a paid education and end up in the same place.”
He spouted off reams of connections and resources in the industry, including one of his favorites, Ray Terry who hosts About Your House Radio with the program Put Tools In Schools. Hoots also works with the South Carolina Regional Education Center for Advisory Board to help high schools understand what curriculum is important for careers. Plus, he uses the Build Your Future website as a clearinghouse for educational materials and resources to present to local high schools and other students.
Peralez is trying to recruit more women into his program. The US Department of Labor wants him to shoot for 22% of enrollment to be women. However, currently only 5 out of 600 in the apprenticeship program are women, which translates to less than 1%.
One of his former female students is now a master electrician, enjoying a lot of success, and shared her journey.
Liz Wilcocks was a high school dropout, but was able to return for a GED, and is now working on a college degree in physics. More than a decade ago, she moved to Texas after losing a solar installation job in California during the recession. She was interested in becoming an electrician after the solar work and was hired by Bowne Electric in Austin. The company put her through school as she worked. Now a master electrician and lighting controls for the company, Wilcocks was able to get all licenses as they came up – a residential license after two years and masters after six years.
“I have been with this company for almost 10 years,” she said. “I was impressed by how quickly my pay went up and it has over doubled in the last 10 years. In the trades, it is one of the few areas where experience is directly reflected by your pay. I’ve had office jobs where there is no real basis for your raises. Once you have your license, you know you are valued at that level anywhere you go.”
Anna Cheniuntai is the co-founder and CEO of Apis Cor, a leading 3D printing construction company. In this role, she also is a female in an industry where 99% of the CEOs are men.
Cheniuntai was born in Siberia with an entrepreneurial spirit. She studied space physics and while studying got into building industrial machinery, learning about CNC machines and earning a $6 million contract to create signage at the Olympic Games. That process exposed her to the inefficiencies in the construction industry.
“So many times construction was delayed so we had to play around with the schedule and budget and everything,” she said. “The contractors were relying on the skilled labor which was limited. Sometimes they didn’t show up on the site for weeks. We started thinking there is space in the industry where robots can be introduced to improve efficiency. This is how we started Apis Cor, with the unique feature of a construction robot.”
While some might think that the robotics would take jobs away from the industry, Cheniuntai sees how it’s opening doors.
“With the robots, anyone can print a house by using a joystick, a job that used to be very labor intensive,” she said. “The younger generation doesn’t want to join because they don’t want to do hard, dirty work. It’s now much more interesting because of the technology. Three years ago, when we started the 3D printing in construction many people thought it was science fiction, but then you see the technology was evolving quickly and today we see that people understand that 3D printing houses is here to stay.”
On a recent The Behind your Back Podcast, the host Bradley Hartmann speaks to Dan Lester, who is the director of field diversity, inclusion and culture at Clayco. Clayco also happens to have the most comprehensive diversity and inclusion program in construction, coined Clayco Rising. The website offers resources for the trade that include training, presentations, policies, and book recommendations.
The company’s employees speak 46 different languages and represent about 40 countries.
“More inclusion gives us better perspective to serve more of the people around us,” Lester said. “There are so many spaces that people bring in and when you bring yourself to the job, then you bring the best versions of yourself to the job.”