Brett Melvin – Executive Director

In United States high schools today, there are more than 15 million students and when they leave high school, a third of them will have no plans for any type of post-secondary education. For several decades, the United States education system has promoted a college education as the only avenue leading to success in life. However, the average college student too often ends up working in a field that does not require a college education and yet is saddled with more than $30,000 in student loan debt.  Have we fallen victim to an education system that has focused on “book sense at the expense of common sense?”

There was a time when students learned about a broader range of career opportunities that also included the trade skills, but today, unless they have a family member or close friend involved in those industries, they likely have no awareness of the great opportunities and lifestyle a career in a trade skill industry can bring them.

A 2016 report by McKinsey & Company reports that less than 50% of students and employers believe that students are ready to work on their first day on the job, but over 70% of teachers believe they are ready. The report also indicates that over 75% of employers have a weak or non-existent relationship with a school of any sort, although that is where the vast majority of future entry level employees are to be found. This is an example of an obvious disconnect between schools and prospective employers.

In the past, many businesses involved in the trade skills found it easier to cannibalize employees from other companies within their own industry than to develop their own recruiting or HR program. But as the baby boomers begin to age out of the workforce, recruiting from other companies has become more and more difficult and now many employers find themselves in the all too familiar position of having to turn down work because they just don’t have the employees to do the job.

Many small businesses do not have a full time HR or training program they lack either the expertise or the financial resources needed to develop a successful program. They are also hesitant to spend the money necessary to train someone because they fear their newly trained person will just leave them to go work for another company that can offer more money because they haven’t dedicated their resources on developing a training program of their own…and they can’t break out of the habit of cannibalizing employees.

Training an entry level employee is both time consuming and expensive. Include the challenge of identifying where to find entry level employees and solving the challenge of how to train entry level employees and it can be overwhelming to most small businesses. Many of the young people coming out of school today lack the knowledge of even certain basic soft skills such as; a good attitude, a strong work ethic, the importance of no drug and alcohol use and  clean social media networks .

It isn’t a big surprise that employers fear spending thousands or even 10’s of thousands of dollars on training and certifying an entry level employee, only for them to leave shortly afterwards because they either decide this isn’t what they want to do, or for a job with another employer. Employers would be much more willing to make the investment that is necessary to hire and train entry level employees if there was more certainty that it wouldn’t be a money losing proposition in the short term.

While there are lots of challenges involved in drawing young people to the trade skills, there are methods available that can make it easier. Building strong relationships between schools and employers is a great starting place. This can happen in any number of ways, including summer internship programs and having local businesses provide special “guest teachers” or employing the “work to learn” programs where students go to school for ½ day and work with a local employer, while learning a skill the other ½ of the day and getting paid for their time on the job.

The key is to provide greater exposure to the trade skills for student and to build long term relationships between schools and educators. There is a need to entice students to the trades and the great opportunities they offer. Educators, businesses and society as a whole, need to promote the attractiveness of the trades and lifestyle they can offer. We need to share that a career in a trade skill is a great path to a solid middle-class lifestyle and beyond.

Learning a trade doesn’t limit one to only doing that trade for the rest of their life, but instead it can be only the first step. Many successful small businesses began because the owner learned their skill and how to run a business by first working in another business in the same industry.

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