We Need More People Learning Skilled Trades

From a Washington Post column by Richard Petty and Billy Lane headlined “We need more people learning trades. Something is finally being done about it.”:

If you’re able to work with your hands, you’ll never be out of work.This is a message the two of us share daily. And it’s a message we don’t think high school kids these days hear often enough. Too few of them are pursuing trades — and that’s bad news for our country, because trade workers in the United States are aging out of their jobs, and there aren’t enough young employees to replace them.

Trade workers are vital to our society, yet somehow over time their importance has been diminished in favor of college-based careers that not everyone is suited for. As the push for most high school graduates to pursue a four-year college degree has increased, investment in trade education has been slashed. The federal government invested $1.3 billion less in Career and Technical Education programs in 2021 than in 1980, when adjusted for inflation. In 2011, the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act, was cut back. And historically, across the country, we’ve seen enrollment in high school CTE programs mirror the decline in federal funding.

Part of the problem is the general misunderstanding about the potential earnings, job demand and knowledge needed for careers in the skilled trades. Those who work in them — welders, electricians, mechanics and more — complete rigorous courses, apprenticeships and training at technical or vocational schools. They possess highly specialized knowledge and command of their chosen trade. Moreover, working in the trades can be a financially smart decision. Over the past two years, wages in the trades increased 15 to 20 percent. These are good careers that men and women are thriving in.

While people in offices or cubicles dream up the next big thing, they’re always going to need someone to build it. Today, however, nearly 25 percent of the manufacturing workforce is 55 or older. As these workers age out, there will not be enough young people to take their place. Statistics show that for every five baby boomers retiring, there’s only one person to take their position. The welding industry, for instance, is looking at a projected shortage of nearly 400,000 workers by 2027.

The good news is that something is finally being done about it. Nationwide, 34 percent of all companies have begun partnering with high schools and trade schools to drum up interest in the trades. Among them is Minnesota-based Northern Tool + Equipment, which launched its Tools for the Trades program in 2021 to donate professional-grade tools and equipment to high school programs.

We came to our love of the trades along different pathways, but we both understand how important it is to be able to work with your hands. To get a racing career off the ground, Richard needed to be able to work with the cars he drove. Before drivers make it big, the more they can help fix their own cars, the better. Richard is world-renowned as a legendary NASCAR driver, but he also harbors a passion for welding that developed in those early years. Back then, he was known around the pits at every track as one of the best welders.

Billy graduated from a four-year university with a degree in engineering before realizing that motorcycle building was what excited him. While following his heart to build custom motorcycles, he was able to apply his education to feats of engineering such as new designs that included the hubless wheel.

Having had people who invested in us along the way, we recognize the importance of doing the same and igniting a passion in the next generation of skilled workers. And we’re hoping to enlist parents in the effort, too. It’s startling that 58 percent of young people today say they have never had meaningful conversations about careers in the skilled trades. We urge parents to start talking with their children about the benefits of a trade career, an excellent option for anyone who’s creative, likes to work with their hands, wants to set their own schedule and doesn’t want to sit at a desk every day.

Trade workers are essential to our infrastructure and are critical employees in our communities. As your children are deciding what classes to take, encourage them to try out shop classes. You never know what kind of passion the courses might ignite. And talk to your school board and administrators about programming. Make sure it remains an option for kids who are trying to figure out what career fits them best.

Not everyone’s calling is to a career that requires a four-year degree, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, everyone wants a career that’s rewarding. And that’s exactly what a career in the trades can be.

Richard Petty is a former NASCAR driver who won a record 200 races in his career. Billy Lane is a custom motorcycle builder and founder of Choppers Inc. and Sons of Speed vintage motorcycle racing series.

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