Constructing your future: How skilled trades provide great alternative to higher education

For many, entering college seems like an automatic choice upon the completion of high school. For years, students have been told this is what they should do, because of the prospects for success and a chance at a stable income are better with a college degree, even if they may not know what direction they want their future to head, leading many to sink tens of thousands of dollars into tuition with a four-year college.

The average total cost for a 4-year degree during the 2020 academic year was $122,000, assuming a student finishes in four years. On average, only 39 percent of students do so, meaning over 60 percent of college students are occurring additional costs, and taking additional time before they are working full time and delaying their income-earning potential.

GMCA began reaching out to high schools to inform students of the benefits of a career in skilled trades.

In addition, 30 percent of college freshman drop out before their sophomore year, costs they may never recoup.

For the rest of graduates, college is an expensive decision.

In 2019, 69 percent of college graduates had to take out student loans in order to help pay for college and graduated with an average debt of $29,900. Student loan debt is also not forgivable in cases of bankruptcy loan forgiveness.

Leaders in the skilled trade industry are looking to become more involved with students and inform them earlier on that vocational training is an option.

Several factors after college have implications for recent graduates and their ability to find a job, which in some cases may be harder than they may have planned.

For these reasons and many more, a career in the skilled trades could be the answer for some. Leaders in the skilled trade industry are looking to become more involved with students and inform them earlier on that vocational training is an option that leaves graduates with little to no debt.

Here’s how some within the industry are feeding the skilled trades pipeline.

For years, the need for skilled workers has continued to increase.

Bringing skilled trades into the conversation
For years, the need for skilled workers has continued to increase. A 2018 survey listed skilled trades as the number one in demand position employers are looking for, and general manufacturing and engineering roles made the top ten. One in four employers listed filling roles in skilled trades as increasingly harder to do.

In Michigan, that need is no different. A 2018 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) noted that 72 percent of Michigan construction firms intended to increase their headcount in the coming year and 61 percent of Michigan firms reported a hard time finding both salaried and craft work positions.

GMCA prepares students for a career in the skilled trades such as carpentry, electrical, or plumbing, through a blend of classroom and hands-on learning.

Many industry educators attribute societal pressure to pursue a college degree as the reason for the disparity between the need for skilled workers and the amount of students pursuing those careers. It’s pressure that often comes from parents or educators around the expectation to go to college, whether or not that may be the best thing for the student, and ignores the fact that there are other options, for in-demand, high-paying careers like the skilled trades. Brian Hawkins, Carpenter Instructor at GMCA and¬†Senior General Superintendent for Three Rivers Corporation.

“You still have that misconception around not choosing the college route, where instructors and counselors in high school tell students that they need to go to college to be successful, and that’s not necessarily true,” says Brian Hawkins, Carpenter Instructor at the Greater Michigan Construction Academy (GMCA) and Senior General Superintendent for Three Rivers Corporation (TRC). “There are a lot of skilled trades people that do very well for themselves.” 

Hawkins has three sons, two of which he says went to college.

“My youngest went for a medical degree,” says Hawkins. “He got a job and hated it. He’s now a carpenter with Three Rivers.”

In an effort to bridge the skilled trades gap, Stephanie Davis, President of the GMCA, began reaching out to local high school students five years ago to help create awareness about the trades as a viable career option. ¬†Stephanie Davis, President of the Greater Michigan Construction Academy.

“Within that first year, we started a program for high school students to reach a different audience and as students were in the process of making career decisions,” says Davis. “It gave those students who maybe weren’t sure if college was for them the opportunity to learn about the skilled trades and another possible career path. With those efforts, we brought these offerings back to the classroom with examples of how a career in this industry is a high-paying, solid option for them to consider. Three Rivers has been a great partner in that effort, both with providing GMCA with skilled, knowledgeable instructors and generating interest with new students.”

There is a clear gap in the workforce where there was a time that High School graduates were being pushed into college and trades classes were being eliminated from school, says Gwendolyn Korte, Personnel Recruiter for TRC.

“I think that when students excel in school, there is a tendency to assume that college is the right path, and that’s not always the right decision. Someone can excel in school and be great at building things.  Not everyone will be great at both.  That’s where the conversation needs to change.  We need to push beyond the idea that college is the only answer or that building trades is easy, it’s not, there is a skill needed that not everyone has.” Gwendolyn Korte, Personnel Recruiter for Three Rivers Corporation.

Programmed to support career growth
GMCA prepares students for a career in the skilled trades such as carpentry, electrical, or plumbing, through a blend of classroom and hands-on learning.

“Often, students that come to GMCA know they want to be an electrician, or they know they want to be a welder,” says Davis. “The only classes they get here are those specific trade classes, and that makes a big difference in terms of the industry-focused education they get, and the value they are immediately able to bring to an employer, not to mention, start earning a paycheck. We're not advocating that other programs at colleges aren’t great programs and don’t provide students value. We are just advocating that students should consider all of their skills and all of their options.”

GMCA tuition is $1,400 per semester, plus books and lab fees. Depending on the trade, the average program costs less than $10,000 in total from start to completion. Additionally, with the help of GMCA member companies, the organization works with contractors to place new students with a prospective employer, so no student is left with a tedious job search and insurmountable debt load post-graduation.

Students at TRC's Starting At Square One Trades Camp running in July 2020.

“We have 100 percent placement for our students and that's something we are very proud of,” says Davis. “About 75 percent of our students are working in their trade when they start with us, in which their contractors are paying for their tuition. Some contractors will pay students’ full tuition right up front for everything, while other contractors will pay for the tuition, but not books and lab fees,” she says. “It depends on the company, but the bottom line is that students are not only graduating with little to no debt, but they are also working and making a good wage throughout the schooling and training process.”

At the camp, students learn about the skilled trades including welding, heavy equipment operation and more.

For companies like TRC, career growth is an ongoing process and one that the company supports for its workers. Korte says TRC sends students to a four-year accredited school specific to their trade for students that come onboard as an apprentice at TRC.

“Even after a student goes through their apprenticeship, if they want to do more engineering or get into architectural drawing or something at a higher level, we’ll still support you to go do that,” says Korte. “So, students can go to trade school, become a journeyman in a trade, and if they want to grow in this industry and require additional schooling, we’ll often support that growth while you’re working.”

Many industry educators attribute societal pressure to pursue a college degree as part of the disparity between the need for skilled workers and the number of students pursuing careers.

Closing the gap: The future of skilled trades
With demand for skilled trades remarkably high and the future of work, employment and the economy uncertain, the environment is ripe for the skilled trades industry to experience a structural shift.

Few opportunities offer students low or subsidized tuition, hands-on training, guaranteed placement upon completion and the ability to work and earn a respectable wage while completing their schooling.

GMCA tuition is $1,400 per semester, plus books and lab fees.

“There’s certainly some occupations that require you to go to a university, but skilled trades are an enticing option for those looking to get into the workforce and build a career debt free,” says Korte. “Over the last several years, statewide, they’re embracing some of these programs, creating skilled trades funding and grants and bringing them back into the schools. Now, I think we are primed for more people to take advantage of this career path because of the both the stability and the dynamic career path it offers.

There isn’t a shortage of jobs for skilled trades workers, and the industry is thriving.  

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates a 10 percent growth in the employment rate between 2018 and 2028 for workers in construction and extraction occupations.

DJ Beebe working in the wood shop at TRC.

Looking forward, Davis says that she hopes to develop the programs at GMCA by providing students with more online classroom options.

“They'll still have the hands-on requirement, but maybe that's done one day a month,” says Davis. “I think that’s going to maybe attract more students for contractors and allow more accessibility to the classroom for those students that are not able to make it here for one reason or another.”

To learn more about GMCA or how to get started on a career in the skilled trades, visit gmcami.org

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