How This Old House is Helping Close the Skilled Trade Gap
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
When I talk to contractors across the country, I hear a familiar refrain. It doesn’t matter if they’re plumbers, electricians, carpenters, roofers, or landscapers, the biggest challenge that they all face is a shortage of skilled labor. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by 2024, there will be more than 7 million unfilled jobs in the construction industry. As older tradespeople retire, there aren’t enough young people entering our industry to fill those vacant jobs.
For more than a generation, there has been a strong emphasis placed on getting a four-year college degree as the main path to prosperity in this country. This is a message pushed by parents, teachers, and guidance counselors. It can be a great fit for some people- both of my sons graduated college and now have successful careers. But there are plenty of others that will go to college without a clear direction, end up with loads of debt, and have a hard time finding employment that is financially beneficial, mentally stimulating, or overall fulfilling.
I grew up the son and grandson of plumbers. I remember tagging along as a little boy on job sites and witnessing how every project required plenty of brain power and creative problem solving, applied through tools and hand-work. I was hooked on every piece of it and knew I wanted a career in plumbing.
In high school, though, the idea of a trade career seemed to be shunned. Technical education was for the flunkies, the burnouts, the kids that didn’t have any promise anywhere else. This stigma has been attached to the construction industry for 40 years or more and it’s only now starting to change.
I feel fortunate to have This Old House as a platform. For close to four decades, we’ve demystified home construction through our PBS programs, our magazine, and our website- reaching millions of people across the country every month. We’ve decided to turn our megaphone on this issue of the skilled trade gap and are working to close it. It’s a program we’re calling Generation Next.
It started by bringing young apprentices from all different skill levels, backgrounds, and parts of the country to work on our job site alongside me, Tom Silva, Roger Cook, and all the other subcontractors that help us renovate houses. We’ve featured the stories on these apprentices on all our platforms and continue to welcome new ones to our job sites, with the hope that a teenager watching the show at home might see himself or herself in one of these young people and realize that the trades are a viable career path.
We’ve also find some powerful allies in this fight. Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs, has been an outspoken advocate for trade schools and technical education for years, and he’s joined our initiative to help raise awareness. Through his mikeroweWORKS Foundation, we’ve been able to offer scholarships to aspiring tradespeople all over the U.S. pursuing technical and vocational education. Industry partners like Brasscraft have helped us grow the funding of that scholarship to really make a meaningful impact.
This program is in its first year, and the attention it’s garnered has really blown us away. It’s been heartening to get emails and social media messages from parents and children that have realized what a good fit a trade career is for them. Just recently, we’ve heard from senators and representatives on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. that are looking for ways to bring this message to an even bigger audience and want to sponsor legislation to support our efforts.
There’s reason to be optimistic. The housing crisis and recession that sent shock waves through our industry has passed. Home builders are building new houses and homeowners are renovating again, so skilled labor is in higher demand than ever. Rising college costs and crippling student loan debt have started to change the conversation about college being the only path to prosperity. Perhaps most importantly, the stigma that has accompanied a trade career seems to be fading. And that gives me great hope for Generation Next.
Thank you to our guest blogger Richard Trethewey for your contribution to our blog and for your insight and commitment to the plumbing trade.