It’s National CTE Month: Let’s Make the Skilled Trades Cool Again!

Well, Career & Technical Education Month is upon us. And, as it happens, last week I was visiting the website for the guidance department of a local high school. The image that greeted me on the home page was telling of our current state of mind about career paths for our students: their mission statement, reinforcing their desire to help all students achieve their life goals, surrounded by eight college pennants. This example sums up the mixed message most guidance offices have sent to students for decades: we’re here to help you achieve your goals…as long as those goals include a traditional college experience. And yet, CTE Month reminds us of the value of skilled trades.

According to a recent article from Entrepreneur, “a Deloitte study found that the skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028, with a potential economic impact of $2.5 trillion.” More and more baby boomers are retiring from the skilled trades: trades that were viewed as “cool” in their generation and have provided them with consistent, decent income for decades. Now the younger generation that has heard the “go to college if you want to be successful” mantra all their lives is not stepping up fast enough to fill these open and “uncool” jobs.

In my state of Virginia, there is one of the highest job openings rates in the country at 5.3%. This means 5.3% of jobs sit unfilled because there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill them. In Virginia’s case, the industries most hurting for workers are construction and health care, though nationally some of the other trades with the most available jobs are information technology and energy.

Another barrier to filling these jobs beyond the “college for all” refrain is that they require a lot of hard work! It takes four to six years of training to become a licensed plumber, electrician, HVAC specialist, etc., similar to a college degree. And the training and certification exams are rigorous, especially considering all of the legal criteria candidates must meet due to the complicated and sometimes hazardous systems they are working with. Learning a trade is every bit as much of a commitment as earning a college degree, so why isn’t it considered as prestigious?

And why isn’t it also viewed as a smarter way to go? Smarter how, you may ask? Smarter because one of the biggest differences between training for a skilled trade and going to college is that companies will often hire students right out of high school and pay for them to get trained. This process helps trade students avoid adding to the almost $1.5 trillion in debt American college students have accrued. I have yet to hear of a college that routinely pays their students to earn a degree.

There are also many specific grants and scholarships out there to assist trade students through training programs. Again, looking at Virginia, in 2016 Virginia Community Colleges started the Workforce Credential Grant Program, which offers grants for students to complete specific Workforce Credential training programs. Below is a list of five nation-wide resources that provide links to grants and scholarships for students of all ages.

February is Career & Technical Education Month. In honor of this month, I ask my fellow educators to keep an open mind and first educate themselves on the payoffs of learning a skilled trade. Then consider promoting how cool the trades really are and encouraging young people to pursue a career as a tradesperson. There is so much opportunity right now to make a great living while doing something that brings real value to people’s lives.

Career & Technical Education Resources:

  1. Generation T, powered by Lowes & partnered with over 50 corporations, provides links to jobs and training across the country
  2. Mike Rowe Works Foundation, provides a Work Ethic Scholarship
  3. Association for Career & Technical Education, provides links to MANY scholarships and grants across the country
  4. Horatio Alger Foundation, provides over 1,000 career & technical scholarships
  5. Imagine America Foundation, provides many scholarships and links to training programs

-Megan Panek'

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