College Alternatives, Part 1: Skilled Trades

The skilled trades are an excellent college alternative.

After the last two posts on financial aid, there were a few private comments about how hard it can be for a student to qualify for some types of aid. Honestly, it is easier now than it has ever been. There are all sorts of programs, initiatives, and projects, all designed to get more people into college.

College is a good thing, but perhaps not for everyone. Not every student is called to a profession that requires college. Not every student is ready for college right out of high school. Not every student is intellectually inclined toward a higher education. For some students, a hands-on trade is exactly where their skills, talents, and interests lie, and that is a good thing, too.

College can be a wonderful learning experience for an engaged, motivated student, but for some, it’s just an expensive party venue with a long-lasting bill. If you have students who maintain they don’t need college, don’t want it, or don’t understand the purpose and meaning of education, it is probably not the right time to go to college. It is better to wait until they are ready than to rush off right after high school and incur debt for an education they won’t appreciate. They can go to work, start a business, work on the family farm, or do something else. If they eventually need college, it will be there.

College Alternative #1: Skilled trades

The first college alternative is the skilled trades, including  machinist, mechanic, builder, welder, electrician, pipe fitter, plumber, electronics or machine maintenance personnel. The traditional list could doubtless be expanded to include healthcare technologists and assistants, cabinet makers, arborists, midwives, and many others. My husband and I encouraged our sons to cultivate both a head skill and a hand skill, not just to have backup career options, but for wholeness of spirit. Although each has a bent toward one type of skill or another, having experience in both has been a personal and professional plus for each of them.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. CrawfordAlthough college has been increasingly pushed as an option for everyone, Matthew Crawford in Shop Class as Soulcraft writes of anecdotal evidence that suggests “one of the fastest-growing segments of the student body at community colleges is people who already have a four-year degree and return to get a marketable trade skill” (p. 12; emphasis mine). Subtitled “An Inquiry into the Value of Work,” Shop Class as Soulcraft examines the purpose, meaning, and value of productive labor through the lens of Crawford’s transition from think-tank PhD to motorcycle mechanic. He makes a compelling case for the trades, noting that he has “often found manual work more engaging intellectually” than wrestling with the abstract.

The trades experience chronic labor shortages, which are only getting worse as experienced workers retire. According to an article in Fortune, “companies that make tangible products are struggling to find candidates for about 237,000 job openings. To put that figure in perspective, it’s 89,000 more than the entire U.S. economy created in September.” Those openings need to be filled, and a 2013 article in Forbes analyzes where the greatest needs will be in the coming years. If you’re willing to consider a career based on demand, the Forbes article offers solid statistics to consider.

Wages for the skilled trades have been compared to wages for middle managers, but figures vary, depending on experience and where you live. Forbes suggest that the “median wage . . . is $20.25 an hour, and even the bottom 10 percent earn $13.14 an hour.” Training for the skilled trades can come through vocational training programs, trade schools, community colleges, or apprenticeships.

Although the skilled trades don’t always earn the respect they should, they are an excellent option. There’s even an extra bit of job security for some of the trades– when was the last time you heard of a plumbing job being outsourced to China?

Resources for information on the trades

  • Profoundly Disconnected is Mike Rowe’s site, designed to “challenge the absurd belief that a four-year degree is the only path to success.” Good articles and information, well presented.
  • mikeroweWORKS Foundation Scholarship OpportunitiesHere are links to partnerships and scholarship opportunities for high school seniors wanting to learn a skill.
  • You can find detailed information about all sorts of jobs in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, a free database from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • The U. S. Department of Labor offers good information on job training and apprenticeships.
  • Check your state’s Department of Labor for information about jobs and apprenticeship programs. Example: Virginia DOL
  • The federal government gives grants to community and faith-based programs to provide job training. You can read the press releases on the site to find programs in your area.
  • National Craft Assessment & Certification Program
  • Labor unions sometimes offer paid training programs; search by trade and state. I recommend reading all the fine print of any agreement, as well as the organization’s constitution, before getting involved.
  • To learn more about workforce training programs in your state, do an online search for “workforce initiative [state name]”.
  • If you would like to read more about labor shortages in the trades, do an online search for “labor shortages trades.” Some articles contain useful links and resources.
  • If you have any resource suggestions, please share in the comment box below.

Next, you may want to read College Alternatives, Part 2: Entrepreneurship, Apprenticeships, and Guilds.

Note: As always, Amazon links are affiliate links. 

2 Responses

  1. April 29, 2014

    […] last College Alternatives post focused on the skilled trades, such as machinist, electrician, arborist, and others. Since […]

  2. January 14, 2016

    […] last College Alternatives post focused on the skilled trades, such as machinist, electrician, arborist, and others. Since […]

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