Apprenticeships and Skilled Trades Offer an Alternative to College

I often talk about college or entrepreneurial options for homeschool students because that is where most of my personal interest and experience lies. However, there are many other wonderful options to consider, including skilled work in hands-on fields such as construction, plumbing, manufacturing, and so on (often referred to as the trades).

I’m reminded of these opportunities now, as my third son, a kinesthetic learner who has always wanted to work in HVAC (heating and air conditioning), has just been accepted into a three-year paid apprenticeship in his chosen field. He found the opportunity in the classified ads of our local paper, but you can search online for similar programs. The application process was similar to a job application process, as he’s going to be working full-time while taking classes, so that at the end of the program, he will be a journeyman.

Remember tech school? Most high schools used to offer shop class, woodworking, machine shop, and other training for interesting blue-collar jobs. Now, with the current emphasis on college, many students aren’t even made aware of the opportunities that are available without a four-year degree. A skilled tradesman (tradesperson? whatever!) can often earn a yearly salary and benefits comparable to that of a college graduate.

I keep reading articles in our local paper bemoaning the fact that employers in many of the skilled trades are finding it difficult to replace retiring older workers. This seems odd, as wages and benefits for a skilled tradesman can equal or surpass that of many four-year college graduates. In addition, the time and cost of learning a skilled trade is significantly less than the cost of college (how much cheaper can tuition get than a paid apprenticeship?). There is always a need for skilled tradesman– just check your local newspaper.

Although I haven’t personally worked in a trade (though I did office work at a machine shop many years ago), I’m familiar with several of them through the experiences of family and friends. I’m even a bit biased in favor of hands-on work, as my father was a machinist, and my husband is as well. I feel as if I’ve spent my life trying to explain that machinists don’t work on cars, they create machines! Machinists transform two-dimensional blueprints into three-dimensional parts, and often, into complete machines. My father built machines that screen-printed bottles; my husband has built machines that make hamburger buns and many other things.

Skilled tradesmen (except those who have chosen outdoor trades) usually work in clean, climate-controlled, well-lighted shops, with good pay and benefits. (Although my husband recently looked at a newspaper photo of a machine shop with a shiny white tile floor, and said, “There’s something wrong in that shop!) Most workers are expected to supply their own tools and toolbox, which they take with them from job to job.

For many, the “vroom-vroom” factor is a big benefit– a lot of people would rather run a big piece of equipment or build with real concrete and steel than sit at a computer all day! If you have a kinesthetic learner, a skilled trade could be an ideal career, allowing for plenty of creativity and wiggle-time (if you thought kinesthetics would ever be totally still, I’m here to tell you that they won’t, so they may as well choose a career that fits!).

According to the newspaper article I mentioned above, the average hourly wage for a tool-and-die maker in 2005 were $23.48; for a machinist, $19.44; an electrician, $22.42; and a chemical technician, $24.07. Many companies offer on-the-job training, which is a time-tested option that works well for many people. Financially, the skilled trades are an excellent choice for high school students who don’t care to go to college. A trade, once mastered, is portable.

For me, one of the biggest advantages of the skilled trades is that most are a ‘leave it at the door’ profession. Unlike people-focused careers that can weight you emotionally after a long day at work, you can usually shut the door on a trade and focus on home and family–the things that really matter in life. I love the fact that my husband comes home ready to be with the family, rather than having paperwork or problems follow him through the door. It’s a priceless benefit.

You can read about the work conditions and employment outlook of many career possibilities, including dozens of skilled trades- some of them quite obscure, in the Occupational Outlook Handbook. You can also get a fairly realistic idea of demand for a particular field in your local area by reading the classified section of your newspaper.

If you have a child who is not academically or entrepreneurially inclined, college is not necessary– just start exploring the trades, and you’ll find a whole world of possibilities!

2 Responses

  1. Diane says:

    I forwarded this article to my sister who has a child in high school who has always struggled academically but loves to be “doing” things and excels in things like band and astronomy (lots of hands on observation). I thought I would share with you what she said: “Oh! I nearly cried when I read that article! Thank you. Thank you for thinking of T and enlightening me. I’ve never known what to say to him, how to encourage him. He is definitely a kinesthetic learner.”

  2. I’m so glad to hear it was encouraging. It’s hard to imagine why abilities of skilled tradespeople (most of whom are probably kinesthetic) are so undervalued– we certainly couldn’t survive without them!

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