By Christine Graf
As the skilled labor shortage reaches an all-time high, educators and trade professionals are working to eliminate the widespread perception that vocational training is not a viable career path for students of all academic levels.
While a four-year college degree costs an average of $127,000, a trade school degree averages just $33,000. Although college graduates earn an average of $16,900 more than those working in the skilled trades, the pay gap is shrinking as companies pay higher salaries to fill open positions in various trades.
Data provided by the U.S. Department of Education indicates that workers with trade school training are slightly more likely to be employed than those with academic credentials. They are also more likely to be working in their field of study and less likely to be burdened by crippling college debt. The amount of student debt in the U.S. has surpassed $1.73 billion.
According to Mike Martell, assistant business manager at IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) 236, students and their parents no longer believe that college is the only option.
“I think it was the case several years ago where high schools and counselors were really pushing people in the direction of college, but I think that has kind of turned the corner a little bit,” he said. “I believe that more people are realizing that a career in the trades makes sense because you aren’t accruing all sort of college debt. You don’t need to go to college and get a four-year degree in order to get a decent job. People are starting to realize that there is another way that is a viable alternative.”
Martell is able to speak on the subject from personal experience. He attended college for several years before deciding to pursue a trade.
“I graduated from high school at a time when counselors and pretty much everyone else was telling you that if you didn’t have a college degree, you weren’t going to make anything of yourself,” he said. “I went college because that’s what I was told. I went for a few years, and it wasn’t really something that was panning out for me. I started seeking other avenues. That’s how I ended up coming here.”
After joining IBEW, Martell said he was concerned that he didn’t have the necessary skill set to succeed.
“I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to hack it. But what it really boils down to is, ‘Do you really want to be here.’ Because that can’t be taught. We can’t teach somebody to care and enjoy this line of work. If they come here with the right attitude, we can give them everything else. For me, it was a little out of my comfort zone, but I was given the training, the skills, and the knowledge that I need to succeed. I wanted to be here, so I made it happen.”
After joining the IBEW workforce, employees receive on-the-job training while earning a salary. Someone with no experience starts out at $18 an hour and receives an excellent benefit package that includes no-cost health insurance and employer pension contributions. A journeyman wireman earns $45 an hour after completing the IBEW five-year apprenticeship program.
“Our program is geared toward somebody coming in and staying for their career,” said Martell. “We have a few different pathways and are able to put people to work almost immediately. We sit down with you and evaluate your skill set. If you don’t have one, that’s fine too. You just need to come in with a willingness to learn, work, and be productive. We set you up and classify you appropriately and get you out to work. You get your skills both on the job and through our apprenticeship and training programs.”
IBEW’s apprenticeship program is more competitive and accepts students a few times a year. The five-year, state-certified program combines on-the-job training with more intense classroom instruction.
In order to attract members, IBEW attends job fairs and partners with local school and BOCES programs. Local BOCES program graduates are in high demand at IBEW and other unions and companies throughout the region.
According to WSWHE BOCES Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Programs Nancy DeStefano, they are devoting considerable resources to promoting the trades among high school students. Their efforts are paying off, and they saw a 10 to 12 percent increase in the number of applications they received this year. Applications are required for students to attend one of their numerous programs.
“This is the highest number we have seen in three or four years,” she said. “With that said, it’s important to remember that our student population is decreasing in the region, so we have lower numbers to pull from.”
She attributes the increased demand to a variety of factors.
“We have done a better job of marketing, and I think the business and the trades have combined their efforts along with us to bring about a greater awareness of what is available in the skilled trades and what opportunities there are for students to start off with solid, well-paying positions with growth opportunities,” she said.
As part of their efforts, BOCES has partnered with numerous businesses on promoting CTE (career and technical education). Partners are too numerous to list but include Saratoga Builder’s Association, Curtis Lumber, DA Collins, Fort Miller Corp. and Saratoga Honda.
WSWHE is also involved in initiatives to attract more women to the trades. Women make up only about 3 percent of the skilled trade workforce. As part of their efforts, WSWHE produced a video entitled Women in Trades: Empower Your Future that can be viewed on their web site.
“We are working towards bringing about greater awareness to students and parents about skilled trades,” said DeStefano. “We have really made a conscientious effort in our marketing during the last three years. We have revised our marketing materials to try and attract more students. We also run TV and radio ads to help parents gain a better understanding.”
DeStefano agrees with Martell that more parents see the trades as viable career paths for their children.
“I think parents have a better understanding of what the trades are and the benefits that students can have by attending a CT program and entering directly into a trade field.”
According to a recent survey conducted by StrataTech Education Group, 80 percent of high school respondents held a positive view of a career in the skilled trades. More than 60 percent felt that vocational/trade schools offer more value when compared to their public college counterparts.
As the skilled trade workforce in the region continues to decline as more and more workers reach retirement age, BOCES will continue to work to attract more students to their programs.
“We’re headed down the right path to address some of the areas of need in the region,” said DeStefano. “We work with school counselors from our component district on what programs are available for students, and we get feedback from the field. We will continue to do marketing and advertising and continue to partner with businesses on continuing that greater awareness. We will have invitations for younger students in middle school and early high school to come and visit our programs to pique their interest. Until you see what goes on in a CTE center, you have trouble imagining what it is like. For example, our auto tech labs have four bays with all of the state-of-the-art equipment you see in any car dealership automotive repair shop.”
Of WSWHE’s 17 state-approved two-year programs, the heavy equipment and diesel mechanic programs are the most popular. Environmental conservation & forestry and culinary arts are among the diverse list of offerings.
“We are a larger BOCES, so we have more programs than a lot of the other BOCES around the state. All of our programs are strong, and our students get very valuable internship programs in their second year,” said DeStefano. “A lot of those internships lead to paid work at the end of the program. For students who are uncertain of what they want to do, CTE program are something they should be looking at.”