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It’s the Day of the Trades

It’s 1987 and a high school graduate is asked, “What are your plans for after high school?”
The response is, “I’m going to trade school.”

Regardless of what was said back to the graduate, one thing that was often felt on the inside was a belief that he/she had plateaued, if not even peaked in high school. Perceptions were also that the graduate had lower ambitions and for sure was not going to have a lucrative career.

The golden, and often only accepted path was to go to college.

Well flash forward to 2023 and if a high school graduate reports they are going to trade school, it’s a whole new day. In fact, it’s the day of the trades.

I had the honor of just finishing an 18-month consulting assignment on high school students entering the trades. The results were not only exciting but opened my own eyes as well.

By no means am I trashing the four-year degree. I am very proud of my own and I definitely feel I gained a lot from it. At the same time, where that was the only perceived path to success, it’s clear that there are forces at play that are opening up other paths. Including the trades.

• Tuition: The average four-year degree program is close to $150,000. Compared to the average trade school tuition which is approximately $35,000. You hear again and again how many employees are sitting on mounds of student debt. High school graduates today can’t help but wonder if the four-year degree is literally worth it. Many can easily do the math and not only calculate how much debt they will have with degree in hand, but also project how long it will take to pay off, and where that will put them on the journey of being able to save for their future.

• Companies: Majority of companies that I work with around the globe are dropping their requirement for a four-year degree to apply for a job. We aren’t just talking about mom-and-pop businesses. Big, blue-chip companies are realizing that you likely don’t need to have taken art history or political science to work in the marketing department. Let’s be clear, if I am having surgery, I want to know my surgeon went to medical school. However, many entry level positions require the willingness to learn on the job not necessarily that you aced your sociology class.

• Job Opportunities: 70% of those in construction said they cannot find enough entry level workers. In 2022 alone, there were over 330,000 job openings for an automotive technician. And unlike the 1987 sentiment that these positions would not make any money, guess again. The average construction manager is making between $90,000 – $100,000.

• Parents: This force is probably the biggest influence on today’s high school graduates. For a Baby Boomer, much of even their own identity was tied to where their children went to college. They were determined, literally at any cost, to be sure their Millennial kids would have a four-year degree. Along come Gen X, parents to today’s high school graduates and there is a different viewpoint. They learned from their Boomer predecessors just how high a price they paid. In addition, of all the generations to be open to “alternative paths” it has been Gen X.

• Life expectancy: For Boomers or Xers, the path forward definitely was said to come to a stop around age 65. That was when your window of work would come to a close. However, today’s youth see that a person’s life expectancy is close to 100 years old. In their eyes, they will be working for a long time. They foresee a life with many careers. Going into the trades is not seen as a dead end or one time opportunity. It can be seen as a start to their career life. Sure, it may last their whole life, but it also won’t be so unusual if they choose to pivot at some point along the way. In their eyes, if a four-year degree is needed at that point, as much as they may doubt it, they’ll figure it out then – and likely be able to afford it much more.

• Core Curriculum: Up until recently, if a high school student wanted to take any classes that introduced them to the trades it had to be an elective. In other words, they had to figure out a way to take automotive or home construction classes on top of their core curriculum classes that are needed to graduate high school. Well make room for “physics in home renovation” or “mathematics in construction” – this allows students to get exposed to the trades while also fulfilling their graduation requirements.

Again, this is not about bashing the four-year degree journey. However, it is about opening up our minds and seeing other pathways not as “alternative” but actual mainstream. If the above forces at play don’t convince you, then I’ll leave you with this… 83% of those working in the trades are satisfied with their careers. I think this stat says it all.

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