Mar 18, 2023 - Economy

The decline of the trades

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

America needs technical workers — and supply isn't measuring up to demand.

The big picture: Older workers in the skilled trades are retiring and not enough young people are training up to take their jobs as construction workers, plumbers, electricians and beyond.

By the numbers: The construction industry faces a gap of a half million workers, according to Construction Dive.

  • And that gap is expected to widen as federal money flows into new infrastructure projects around the country — calling for even more labor.
  • The application rate for technical jobs like plumber and electrician dropped by 49% between 2020 and 2022, NPR reports.

What's happening: As America de-industrialized in the second half of the 20th century, education was reimagined to emphasize seeking four-year degrees, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

  • As a result, "we have a K through 12 system that does create better education and more high school graduates, but doesn’t do any job training," he says. And four-year college is held up as the ultimate goal for every student.
  • The pandemic also delivered a blow to technical education. Enrollment in vocational degree programs fell as a lot of these courses leaned on hands-on learning and didn't work well in a remote world.

Zoom out: "We have this stigma with working with your hands like that's supposed to mean you have less of a brain," says Robb Sommerfeld, co-founder of the National Center for Craftsmanship. "That's absolutely not the case."

  • Some 30 million jobs in the U.S. that pay an average of $55,000 per year don't require a bachelor's degree, according to a Georgetown analysis.
  • And while college graduates do earn more on average than trade school graduates, a four-year degree doesn't guarantee a high-paying job. Student debt is rising, and only two-thirds of those with degrees say the debt was worth it, per a YouGov poll.

The bottom line: Careers in the trades provide paths to prosperity, but recruiting new workers will require a shift in the way the U.S. thinks about education, Carnavale says.

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