Lisa Szymanski, 45, recently enrolled in an apprenticeship program in Portland, Ore., with her sights on becoming a carpenter.
Until recently, she was making her living in graphic arts, but the work has dried up and she decided to try something new.
“As long as you know how to use a hammer, someone will pay you a few bucks to do something,” she said. “You can’t outsource this kind of work. You can’t call India to get a carpenter.”
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For the last few decades, the prevailing wisdom among many has been that you have to go to college and get an office job in order to make it in the technological workplace of the future. But today, many workers, rattled by the recession and wondering if their desk jobs will ever come back, are turning to trades that require more hands-on, dirty work — everything from carpentry to plumbing.
These types of jobs may be coming back into vogue thanks in part to promised infrastructure investments from the federal government, such as bridge improvements, which will drive a need for welders. Tax incentives to boost home energy efficiency are opening the door for everything from electricians to solar panel installers.
“Many adults are seeking to improve their technical skills to gain a labor market advantage,” said Clyde Hornberger, executive director for Lehigh Career and Technical Institute, located near Allentown, Pa. Adult enrollment at the school has jumped to 1,057 this year from 855 three years ago, he said.
David Montano, Plumbing and Pipefitting Training Coordinator at Local 412 in Albuquerque, N.M., said the union has a waiting list of 200 people who want to get into the program and a total of 250 apprentices in the program now, compared to 55 apprentices 10 years ago. Among apprenticeship applications, he gets about 20 percent more from adults today than he did a decade ago.
“A lot of them have gone to college and find out all they have is debt and not much to show for it. ... Even the jobs they’re getting don’t pay that much,” he said. “People are noticing the trades is a noble way to make a living.”
High school educators also are realizing that it’s not wise to prepare students for college and nothing else because many of them will never graduate from college, Montano said.
Alternative to college
Indeed, McClain Walsh didn’t think he would be able to get into college, so he signed up for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Pre-Apprenticeship Initiative during his senior year in high school.
The 12-week program Walsh got into was funded through a local industry partnership and managed by the Northeast Pennsylvania Labor Management Council. It exposes high school seniors to the trades and is supported by 60 school districts in the state.
Walsh, who lives in Scranton, Pa., is now in the electrical apprenticeship program at the IBEW Local 81.
“I’ve always been a hands-on type learner, and it sparked my interest being in the construction field,” he said about his experience in high school.
Right now, there is anything but a job bonanza in the skilled trades because of the economy, but most labor and skilled-trade experts believe the future is bright.
Many of the people in the trades right now will be retiring in the next five to 10 years, said Fred Humphreys, president and CEO of the Home Builders Institute, the work force development arm of the National Association of Home Builders. “We do not have enough workers coming into the industry to replace them,” he added.
He’s also convinced initiatives by President Barack Obama's administration will lead to more jobs. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 earmarked $5 billion for home weatherization, Humphreys said. And estimates show that every $100 million worth of residential remodeling activity creates over 1,000 jobs, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
The Department of Labor projects jobs such as plumbers will jump 15 percent through 2018; electricians by 12 percent; and carpenters by nearly 13 percent.
The focus on green technologies has also sparked interest in the skilled trades.
“In Pennsylvania, we predict 115,000 new jobs to be created over the next five years in the green economy,” said Sandi Vito, Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. “In the long term, there are real opportunities in the skilled trades.”
And David McCord, executive director of the electrical apprenticeship program of the Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee in Washington, D.C., a union and contractor partnership, said he has 800 electrical apprentices in his program now, and they can choose to go into a host of areas including alternative energy, such as solar and wind power.
Many apprenticeships within the skilled trades involve a combination of classroom studies and on-the-job training, working with an experienced trades workers. The apprenticeship programs typically run for five years.
First-year electrical apprentices in the Washington area get $16.90 an hour, plus benefits, on day one, McCord said. When they reach journeyman status, which is basically someone who has fully learned his or her trade, workers can make as much as $37.56 an hour.
But “jobs are limited now,” McCord said.
Maria Flynn, a vice president for the Building Economy Opportunity unit for the nonprofit advocacy organization Jobs for the Future, wants to make sure that the stimulus dollars going to communities across the country for training and education of workers is in line with real demand. “We’re working with communities to make smart choices and make sure that individuals are being trained for jobs that are going to be there when they get their certification,” she said.
Workforce development programs in the late 1990s came under a lot of criticism, she said, because “the training did not mirror the labor market demand in an area.” But, she said, the federal programs now have tried to build in more employment realities.
For workers trying to figure out if welding or plumbing will be in demand where they live, Flynn suggested they contact their local Department of Labor career centers. You can find one near you by going to www.servicelocator.org and type in your zip code.
Don’t just rely on a community college or trade school telling you a job will be hot, Flynn said. “The school could be pushing their own agenda.”
There are also special programs available for women, like the one Szymanski signed up for in Portland called Oregon Tradeswomen, and programs for veterans.
In 2008, the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Sprinklerfitters teamed up with the U.S. military and formed the UA Veterans In Piping (VIP) program, to train veterans in welding.
Anne St. Eloi, a special representative for the program, said after a 16-week training program they are able to promise vets employment, although that could involve relocating to states where there are more job opportunities such as Texas, the Carolinas, Georgia and Illinois.
The program is now offered in Washington state and California, but will be rolling out to Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota soon, she said.
The demand for welders is actually expected to decline by 1.6 percent through 2018, according to the labor department. But job opportunities in welding will depend on where you live, St. Eloi said, and government initiatives to fund infrastructure projects around the country will potentially boost job growth in the field.
Cancy Terrel, 27, a former Marine who was deployed in Iraq, isn’t worried.
Terrel, who lives in Seabeck, Wash., graduated from the VIP program last week. He will be placed in an apprenticeship program with a local union in the state and will begin work as a welder.
“I was a combat engineer in the Marine Corp, and my skills didn’t convert to civilian life,” Terrel said. “ I had to find a new skill, and welding was always something that interested me.”
Once he’s done with his apprenticeship, he expects to make upwards of $60 an hour, including benefits.
“It’s a skilled trade,” he added. “If you have a skill, you can always have work.”