The headlines have been shocking. Manufacturing flying overseas. Robots replacing American workers. The reality is much of what was once considered traditional “blue-collar” work is indeed becoming automated, but not always for the reasons you might think. In a recent interview, Rice University Professor of Computer Science, Moshe Vardi, stated that along with inevitable low-wage, low-skill job losses, many mid-skilled positions (warehouse, healthcare diagnostics, data entry) are also being taken over by automation - due to tight labor markets and the higher wages they create.
Half of low-skilled US jobs are at risk of being replaced by automation.
- Center for Business and Economic Research
But in high-skill industries like HVAC, construction, manufacturing and engineering – machines aren’t replacing workers – they’re working along side them, as companies struggle to find enough skilled tradespeople with the knowledge and background to do all the work available.
A recent study by The Construction Association claims over 90% of Minnesota employers reported difficulty in filling some or all craft (skilled) positions. Federal data shows that 10,000 Americans will reach retirement age EVERY DAY for the next TEN YEARS. With these waves upon waves of baby boomer retirements – the shortage of skilled workers won’t abate anytime soon.
A Flood of Help Wanted Signs
Far from eliminating jobs, technology and innovation are actually creating MORE jobs every day.
One factor connects many of these positions – they require skills learned through trade schools.
Thanks to a promotional blitz funded by more than $1 Billion in federal funds to Career and Technical Student Organizations across the country, middle school, high school, college, and post-secondary students are learning about and training in various vocational fields to fill these open positions and not a moment too soon.
Stemming the Tide
Students looking for education beyond high school have always known that college and trades schools are both good options. But a new trend shows, for the first time in American history, a plateau and overall enrollment decline at four-year colleges and universities. In fact, since 2010, enrollment at those schools has dropped by more than 5 million students. Meanwhile, since 2000 there has been a massive 50% increase in two-year college enrollment.
Financial Head Start
While it is true that the average bachelor-degree holder eventually earns a higher average salary than that of a trade-school graduate, it comes with some hidden costs.
Because college graduates are in school longer, they start earning income later. Factoring in that many college students actually take nearly 5 years to both graduate and find a job, The National Center for Educational Statistics estimates that it takes the equivalent of 12 years for them to catch up to the earnings of a trade school graduate.
Blue Collars Going Pink
In the next 5 years, the U.S. Government expects 68% more job openings in Infrastructure-related fields (think roads, rail, air, and shipping) than people training to fill them. Due to a combination of retirements and job growth, the transportation industry alone expects to hire and train more than 4.5 million new workers.
To bridge the worker gap, more and more industries are departing from the traditional male-dominated workplaces to reach out to more female applicants. As recently as 10 years ago, many trade school classrooms were completely filled with men. But with jobs left unfilled, the current 10% of construction employees who are female is estimated to explode by 250% of the current levels, with women filling at least 25% of all positions in just the next two years.
And those jobs will be lucrative. According to annual reports by the National Center for Construction Education and Research, the average salary for worksite occupations rose nearly 15 percent since 2012.
One Hot Commodity – Skilled Workers
The American Welding Society predicts a massive worker shortfall of more than 200,000 welders by 2020, so the jobs outlook is as hot as the metal they work with.
Welders are needed in aircraft, automobile, trucking, marine, pipefitting, plumbing, sheet metal, ironworking, even commercial divers – the list of industries you can work in are almost endless.
-Caleb Paulson, Saint Paul College Welding Instructor
Hands-On, Minds-On Careers
For many students – and for that matter, many people in general – sitting in front of a laptop for the next 40 years does not compute. While more and more low skilled jobs are outsourced to countries with cheaper labor, demand for high-precision skills is at an all-time high, and nearly all skilled trade work demand a physical, on-site presence. It all adds up to a strong chance of long-term career security not found in many other job sectors.
For those who crave learning by doing, and working in the physical world rather than a virtual one – trade programs are looking up for the long-term.
By Brendan Loughrey, Contributing Writer
This article originally appeared in our College Magazine - Spring 2020.
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