Most American high school students probably heard from counselors, teachers and administrators that if they went to college and got a degree, they would be set up for success. However, readers of this blog know that college is not the one true path to a life well lived, there are some pretty sweet alternatives.
With colleges and universities gearing up to face the challenges of COVID-19, we thought “back-to-school” season was the perfect time to highlight some of the various paths into tradework. But before we do, we know that most of our community knows how they got into the trades.
This blog isn’t to tell you something you already know, it’s for your children, nieces and nephews and family friends who might be the next rock star plumber, electrician or HVAC technician that could use this information to build an awesome life for themselves.
What’s Compelling About Trade Careers?
At Truewerk, we believe in the acquisition of skills. That may happen in the classroom, on the job or online - where the learning occurs is far less important than helping to train the next generation of trade professionals. However, before we dive into how to become a trade professional, let’s cover the basics around WHY the trades might be the right path. This might seem basic but if young adults aren’t exposed to successful trade professionals they may not understand how great it can be.
Most parents believe that a college education is the only way to achieve a stable career. It’s become the golden ticket to success in the eyes of parents, teachers and various employers. For certain professions, college degrees are absolutely necessary and required (even for entry-level positions or internships), but having one is not the only way to make a living.
Skilled trade professions open the door to a different way-of-life with the same (or better) financial stability desk job, AND...
You gain experience immediately: Learn by doing. In the trades, you don’t compete for unpaid internships because you’re already on the job learning from skilled professionals as part of the process.
Price tag is easier to digest: College is pretty damn expensive and many spend at least a decade paying off those expensive classes. Trade schools on the other hand are typically more affordable, have higher scholarship availability and are generally more accessible. Trade careers carry less of a financial burden in the long run.
It takes less time to start earning an income as a trade professional. In some situations, like apprenticeships - you may even be earning as you learn.
- The skills gap is REAL. According to Kaempf & Harris, “With the baby boomer generation retiring, a huge opportunity awaits millennials and Generation Z to earn positions in trade careers. Aside from mass job openings, there's always a need for metal fabricators, welders, plumbers, carpenters, and more. Because trades are always in demand, there's ample opportunity and strong job security.” High-paying trade jobs sit empty while high school graduates line up for University and compete for unpaid internships.
We think there are plenty more reasons working in the trades is an incredible choice...stay tuned. In September, we’ve got something special happening - make sure you’re subscribed to our email list and follow us on Instagram to be notified.
Options for Skilled Trade Education
The trades are not one-size-fits-all. How trade professionals got their start can vary from person to person. While it may seem overwhelming to weigh different options and determine which one is right, becoming qualified for say, being a nurse or lawyer, certainly doesn’t provide the same personalization and adaptability as the trades.
Below we outline four different pathways into tradework. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, for example, there are many people who get into tradework through the family business - and we won't cover that - but if we miss something you think is important definitely tell us in the comments!
Entry-Level Trade Jobs
Most only require a high school degree or GED - sometimes, not even that - to be considered. If you’re looking to save (and make) money, want to dip your toes in the water, or even just see where it takes you - starting in an entry-level trade job might be right for you. Though basic, it allows you to come in with literally no experience and start earning a paycheck while learning on the job.
These opportunities take some effort to track down - keeping tabs on your local job boards, showing up in person to ask about openings, doing frequent google searches - but they DO exist. For example, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of recreational vehicles is hiring an entry-level full time mechanic and stresses in the job description that they’re willing to train anyone who is eager to learn.
What starts as an entry-level labor role may grow into much more. Plus, it’s a reasonable way to gain on-the-job experience and exposure to what a long-term career in the trades might look like, and let’s face it, everyone starts somewhere. In nearly EVERY industry, you can’t walk in and expect to pick up a higher-level, higher-paying job with no experience. It takes time, dedication and practice to get to an elevated skill level and position.
Construct Ed outlines the eight entry-level trade jobs that require no prior experience here.
What is Trade School?
Trade schools - one of the most common ways into trade work - offer a number of compelling advantages. Admission is typically open enrollment, so you don’t have to stress out about acceptance. Some programs take only six weeks to complete, while longer programs take up to two years. This is significantly shorter than a college program, which often requires four years. Plus, The average cost of a trade school education is $33,000 compared to a four-year college’s average $127,000 cost (Bigrentz). There are also grants and scholarships available to help cover the costs, just like a four-year college. Unlike a four-year college, you don't graduate from a trade school with a bachelor's degree. Usually, upon completion of the program, you'll receive a diploma or trade certificate acknowledging you successfully finished and...most likely start a job or begin an apprenticeship.
Lack of knowledge and misconceptions about the trades have led parents to steer their kids away from these programs, but vocational training might actually be a surer path to a stable future. This alone tells us that there are a variety of paths to a successful career - and, despite the stigma - vocational training is one of them.
Aside from time, money and a clear future - trade schools also provide a unique learning experience that preps you for life on a job site differently than a classroom might prep someone for a tech sales role. Each program will focus on the trade of your choice with hands-on training and a deep understanding of regulations, tools and more. The classes are smaller too. Another pro? You can start working while you’re still in school because of the flexibility of your classes.
It’s important to ensure the school is licensed - you can check with your state agencies or the U.S. Department of Education. Beyond that, the school should have accreditation by a private education agency or association that evaluates the program to see if it meets a set of requirements to make you eligible for jobs. You can check that and find out more here:
- Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs
- Council for Higher Education Accreditation
- Federal Trade Commission
Before that, you have to actually find some schools you’re interested in. It may take ample research online and visits - the same way a college would. You can use one of these search engines as a first step:
Trade Apprenticeship or Mentorships
According to StudentCaffe, an apprenticeship is a program that provides both paid on-the-job training and supplemental classroom training related to a certain trade. Apprentices earn money as they learn. They are similar to trade school programs, and apprentices may even take classes at trade schools, but they do not have to take any time away from working to complete their education. In an apprenticeship, work is education, with supplemental classes thrown in here and there.
Programs can be either registered, meaning that they receive federal and/or state oversight, or unregistered, meaning that they are maintained by a business. This article can fill you in on the differences between a federal and unregistered program, plus shed light on much more.
We chatted with Levi Smith, an Apprentice Electrician with The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Union 716 in Houston, TX pursuing his Journeymans license to hear his insight.
“After the hiring process, I was out on the field and going to school. They have everything structured fairly well between the school and work,” Levi said. “You have to get a certain amount of credits and hours before being able to get your Journeyman license - which is my next step. My apprenticeship allows me to work toward that without sacrificing having a pretty comfortable lifestyle.”
Levi’s professional development won’t stop there. He plans on getting a master electricians license after obtaining and holding his Journeyman license for two years (the requirement to be eligible to take the test) through IBEW. Eventually, this will give him the experience he needs to own his own electrical company.
Until then, Levi is embracing the unique camaraderie among those undergoing the program with him, “One of the first things I loved about my program, and the trades in general, are the people. For the most part, people are there trying to have a good day, shoot the shit and build stuff with their hands - just like me. That makes it really easy to wake up in the morning and keep going and keep trying to get better.”
In his particular program, Levi shared that there are several incentives for raises too, “The guys there are teaching us - they want us to get better and try harder, the pay increases help that. It can be a long process to get where you want to be, but they make hanging on worth it.”
How to find a program like Levi’s? You can check out this search engine or try Googling something like “Electrician Apprenticeship” and several results in the area will pop up. That should lead you to your state’s Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship Programs Directory - it should look similar to the one Colorado has. You can also search for local Unions in your state. Another great avenue is checking out job boards - there are often unregistered apprenticeships listed which are direct through an employer.
If you’re still with us we won’t be spending a lot of time talking about colleges and universities - there are plenty of other resources out there covering 4-year degrees. For some students, college might be exactly the right blend of what they need.. For example, someone interested in construction management, owning their own business or returning to join the family business might want to start by obtaining a degree in those areas.
The plus side of college is many classrooms integrate how to communicate what you’re learning into the curriculum. Once you have your skills and knowledge, what does it matter if you don’t know how to showcase them during an interview? Be sure to follow us on Instagram this month to see some of our Truewerk community talking about how to communicate the value of their work and education. These bits of advice might be useful no matter where you are in your career.
Colleges also may help you become eligible for certification programs. For example, The Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) has established the Certified Construction Manager program. To be eligible, CMAA considers a combination of professional and educational experience - you either need a degree or at least four years of consecutive work experience as a construction lead.
While these types of certifications aren’t required to work within the industry - obtaining a voluntary certification from a trusted source can demonstrate competence to prospective employers or clients.
The Learning Continues
Working in an ever-evolving industry, there’s always more to learn and ways to grow. It’s a given that experience on the job site improves your skills, but there are ample opportunities to continue reaching new levels of certifications or titles and get better off the clock. For example, Ken Ballin of Skyro Floors started out by just offering tiling, as his business grew, so did his capabilities and expanded it to all types of flooring.
Another great way to build yourself and others is incorporating an apprenticeship or mentorship program within your own business to teach the next generation of trade professionals. This quickstart toolkit is a helpful guide and so is this straightforward list of steps.
Whether you’re simply looking for more knowledge or on the search for continuing education credits and certifications, there’s plenty of resources we felt are worth sharing:
Construct-Ed: This online learning resource for the construction and skilled trades industry is an open platform where real experts and educators from any trade in the industry can publish online courses. So while there aren’t any officially issued credits, you will find advice from real pros in the industry sharing the skills you need to grow. Plus, each course you complete can even be added to your LinkedIn profile with the click of a button. The courses range from free to $20.
ProTrade Craft: While ProTrade Craft doesn’t offer full online courses, they do offer bits of information from every trade you can think of published by real industry professionals. You’ll find videos, articles, drawings, specs and more. It’s kind of like an online magazine with videos exclusively for the trades.
Hanley Wood University: Find hundreds of continuing education courses created by leading industry content specialists, and earn credits for the following organizations: AIA, AIA/HSW, ASLA, GBCI, IDCEC, NAHB, NARI and NKBA. It’s a great place to earn CEU credits year-round.
Contractor Talk: Kind of like Reddit, just for trade professionals. As one of the largest online forums you’ll find, you can ask or answer a question for any trade.They also include a section on product reviews and projects.
Red Vector: As a long-time leader in the online construction training space, they provide training for individuals and companies for a wide variety of trades. Over half their online courses have been awarded approvals and accreditation, so you can easily find the continuing education credits you or your company are looking for. They also offer corporate training if you’re a larger size business looking to train your crew.
Construction Dive: A leading publication worth adding into your reading list. Aside from news and trends, they also provide helpful industry research and insights in their library and often host helpful events from trade shows, webinars and more.
JLC Live and events like it help you build your knowledge and perfect your skills. While COVID-19 may have postponed some of them, others are available online as webinars. Keep an eye out for events that might be relevant for your trade.
- BuilderTactics: A training academy for construction management is coming soon and in the meantime, the Construction Management Podcast is the perfect listen for your commute.
We also cover a handful of other resources (like podcasts and YouTube channels) you might find useful in our blog post about essential businesses.
We weren’t kidding when we said many young adults aren’t hearing about the value of trade work - that there are approximately 30 million jobs in the US paying $55,000 or more that do not require a bachelor's degree. This isn’t a question of which is better, it’s not about white-collar vs. blue-collar, we need both - but right now only one is suffering from neglect.
At Truewerk, we want to protect, promote and empower those with the aptitude for skilled, physical work. That includes empowering the next generation to understand what a truly awesome way-of-life tradework can lead to. Help us do that, share this blog with a parent of student you know who might be interested in the trades and comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with ideas on how we as a company can help!