by Alexandra G. a winner of the 2017 HomeAdvisor Scholarship Program
The 2017 HomeAdvisor Scholarship Program awarded $5,000 scholarships to three outstanding students who submitted essays outlining their ideas to solve the trade labor shortage. Essays were first reviewed internally then sent to an esteemed panel of HomeAdvisor Service Professionals who made the final winning selections. Want to know more? Click here.
“Bidding wars for the last hundred houses have begun. There have been reports that as many as one thousand potential buyers are vying for each home. Prices are expected to peak in the millions for the smallest one-bedroom house and in the tens-of-millions for the two-plus bedrooms. Crowds have gathered…” The news anchor drones on about the protests, the dirty tactics, and the constantly repeated question of “what now?” but I tune it out. The housing crisis is all that’s talked about now. During every lunch break, every sports game, every phone call, people are talking about who has a house, how much someone’s house has risen in price, how someone managed to rent a house, or a buy a house, or sell a house. Nobody talks about how we got in this mess. Nobody wants to acknowledge that this crisis is of our own making. Well, there’s no use trying to change the past, but maybe there is still hope for the future. I focus my attention on The Complete Do-it-Yourself Manual I found in a second-hand shop and turn to “Section 7: Plumbing: How to Keep it in Working Order.”
The headlines don’t have to change from “Millennials aren’t Buying Homes” to “Nobody can Buy Homes.” Unfortunately, with the skilled labor shortage, this is the path that the country is heading towards. Currently, the craftsmen workforce is primarily composed of older individuals that are retiring and leaving behind openings that are not being filled by the younger generation. There are a number of possible reasons for this shortage, detailed in HomeAdvisor’s 2016 Skilled Labor Shortage Report1, but the one that is most overlooked and has a precedent for being remedied is the underutilization of half of the population’s workforce. The women! HomeAdvisor’s report states that “women most commonly credit ties to the family business as their reason for entering the profession,” and then doesn’t mention them again. That isn’t to say that they aren’t included in the millennial or younger generation category that the report discusses, but it would be beneficial to the resolution of the issue if women in general are considered in terms of the skilled labor shortage.
In recent years, women have become more integrated into the diverse fields of the workforce. Part of the reason for this is the de-stigmatization of women working in commonly accepted “men’s fields,” such as engineering. In fact, the proliferation of women in STEM fields recently is the precedent for which the skilled labor shortage can benefit from, or at least, get inspiration from. In the last decade, there has been a massive effort to encourage women to pursue an education and career in a STEM field. Scholarships specifically for women in STEM emerged, universities and STEM companies pushed for the recruitment of women, and the idea of women in STEM became as normal as men in STEM. Of course, it’s still not completely equal, but this is a relatively recent initiative that is still growing. Women now firmly believe that they can work in a STEM field and men are increasingly accepting of it too.
The same initiative must be undertaken in the skilled labor field. It is actually more imperative for skilled labor because whereas STEM fields are not facing a shortage of workers, skilled labor is. There is a demand for workers, so the industry cannot afford to overlook half of the able-bodied workforce. In 2014, only 8.9% of skilled trade workers in the United States were women2 and peak residential construction employment is lagging behind by over a million workers1. It will be impractical to fill all, or even the majority, of those positions with men. So, how should women be encouraged to join the skilled labor workforce? The first step is the dissemination of information. Skilled trades like construction, carpentry, welding, etc. are simply not talked about in high schools anymore, which is the time when students decide whether they will attend college or not. In my junior and senior years, there were almost monthly announcements, guest speakers, and college representative that encouraged and incentivized students to apply for colleges. There were speakers and information pamphlets directed entirely towards women, and the career opportunities they can look forward to, STEM or otherwise. There was not a single analogous skilled trade speaker or any information provided about entering the skilled labor workforce. Is it any surprise that women only enter the skilled labor workforce through family connections? They wouldn’t hear it otherwise.
Even if there is a push to promote the skilled labor sector in high schools, there is no guarantee that it will encourage more than a few predisposed individuals to choose skilled labor over college. The push for women in STEM, though a sign of progress, will impede the efforts to bring them into the skilled labor workforce. The reason for this is the association of college with achievement and blue collar work as menial; something to be done when there is no other option. When I was growing up, I would hear adults saying things like “why don’t you try harder? Do you want to mow the lawn for a living?” This automatically causes children to associate physical labor with failure, and that is absolutely not the case. I confess to having the same perceptions before my father started his own handy-man business. His work really changed my attitude towards skilled laborers. The work they do isn’t low or menial. It requires patience, hard work, and diverse knowledge. The problem is that I would never have realized that if I didn’t personally see my father doing it. There are all these TV shows that glorify science and law, and they are certainly worthy of praise, but it forces other jobs onto the lower end of the job spectrum. All jobs are necessary to the functioning of society. Unless this negative perception of skilled labor is removed, the struggle to fill the labor shortage will be prolonged and arduous.
From watching my father operate his handy-man business, and occasionally helped him, I found that some aspects of it actually interested me. Again, I would never have known if my father wasn’t doing it. Students in high school are exposed to science, literature, math, and social studies so they can figure out what interests them. Skilled trade has been phased out of secondary education. I’ve watched movies where the students are in shop class, and that doesn’t exist in most school anymore. How can students choose to enter a field they’ve had no experience in? Skilled labor workshops, seminars, and information sessions cannot be a thing of the past if the labor shortage is to be remedied.
Providing information about skilled labor shortage is a start, but there are two specific incentives that must be communicated for students to choose to attend a trade school and pursue skilled labor. Financial benefits and long-term potential. The first is self-evident. Blue collar work is often associated with low salaries and even unsteady paychecks. Provide evidence to the contrary. For example, plumbers can make up to $43.53 an hour.3 Remind students that most of the higher earners attended trade school, so skilled laborers are not uneducated. Separate the notion of uneducated from skilled labor. Stress the “skilled” of skilled labor. To incentivize women specifically, provide facts like experienced women in trades can make up to six figures a year, and that the 93.4% gender pay gap in the construction industry is less than the 82.1% nationwide.2 There are management positions in skilled labor just as there are in any white-collar job. A construction manager can earn up to $76.12 per hour.2 It’s no secret that people go to college in order to improve their financial security and long-term career potential.
Perhaps one of the best ways to augment enrollment in trade schools is to stop considering it in terms of either/or. It shouldn’t be trade school instead of a four-year college. Why not trade school in addition to a four-year college? Of course, college isn’t for everybody, but the possibility of both would be a great incentive to those that wish to have the traditional education. This would work best with a business, accounting, or other related field of study in a four-year college. By providing the option of both, students could better see the financial and career potential of combining a degree with a trade. The obvious barrier to this is the cost of attending both. However, this is another area where skilled labor can learn from STEM. Many STEM field companies offer tuition scholarships to students who promise to work for a number of years at the company after graduation. A similar concept would work for skilled labor. Let’s say a student in high school is interested in carpentry, but also has aspirations to go to business school. That student is recruited by a carpentry company who offers the student a tuition scholarship to attend a four-year college for business provided that they go to a trade school first and then agree to work for that company either while attending or after graduating from the college. The end result is that the student achieves both goals and the skilled labor force has one more carpenter. This arrangement would entice students who have even the slightest interest in a skilled labor field, especially those that are in the lower income range.
It is important to consider the students already in a four-year college as well. Many students in their freshman and sophomore years have an undeclared major and are taking core classes. Career fairs at universities typically target the upperclassmen, but a career fair for skilled labor that is geared towards the underclassmen could spark interest in students who are still undecided about their career path. The tuition scholarship idea would be just as appealing to the underclassmen who have two to three years of college left to pay for. It wouldn’t be too hard to modify the arrangement so that the students attend trade school after graduation, and then work in the trade for however many years were agreed upon. Of course, this does require skilled labor companies to be willing to sponsor students, but there is precedent for the success of such arrangement so it wouldn’t be a blind leap of faith.
The future isn’t set in stone. The headlines can just as easily read “Skilled Labor Soars” as “Bidding War for Final Houses.” In fact, it would be much easier to achieve the former headline than the latter worst-case scenario. Students need to be exposed to the different skilled labor fields and their benefits, such as pay and career potential. They need to be presented with incentives and opportunities, such as tuition scholarships and career fairs. If the either/or approach isn’t working, try the best of both worlds. It’s not unheard of, and it is possible. Most of all, don’t forget about the women, who are just as capable of succeeding in skilled labor as men. They are overlooked and underutilized, but they have great potential to change the labor shortage if they are given the chance to do so. It’s not a man’s world or a woman’s world. The skilled labor shortage affects our world, and it is not too late to fill it.