Moving the Perception Needle to Fill the Skilled Labor Shortage

As our nation grapples with skilled labor shortages, we ask why; Population and Perception.

Population.  The US population is growing at the slowest rate since the 1930’s. And, a lot of people have pulled out of the labor force.  The main cause of the falling labor force participation rate is the retirement of the Baby Boomers.  This generation is now aging out of the workforce and taking their talent with them. And they are retiring in fairly large numbers. The Baby Boomers are leaving the workforce/reaching the retirement age at roughly 10,000 per day. And once again, the baby-boom generation has become a generator of change, but this time in its retirement.

As the Boomers exit from the labor force, they are being replaced by the Millennial age group (ages 24-39) and after that Generation Z (ages 8 – 23).   The Millennial age group is the largest age cohort in the US today.  At the most populous age of 28 years old, they are fairly well established in their chosen career paths.

Perception.  Unfortunately, 66% of Gen Zs, right on their heels, express little to no interest in skilled trades careers – partly because they have no idea what people who work in the skilled trades do, and partly because of their own perception and that of their family influencers. 44% of parents express that a career in the skilled trades will negatively affect their child’s financial goals.

So, why the negative perception? This perception can be attributed to age-old myths, misconceptions and the entertainment media’s portrayal of skilled trades as being unflattering at best.

Humor me for a moment… “Close your eyes and picture a plumber”…“Is the plumber overweight?”… “Are the plumber’s trousers riding a bit too low?”… I bet you can picture this perfectly!

Skilled trades workers are often portrayed as stupid, poor, lazy or rude.  Not to mention, there are many common mistaken beliefs about working in the skilled trades.

  1. Trades work is only seasonal and layoffs are far too common

In today’s world, most skilled trades operate year-round—and there’s plenty of work to go around.  Not to mention many job openings as well!

  1. Skilled Trades are a “Man’s Job”

This is an old myth with just no facts to back it up. However, it is concerning that only 8.9% of skilled trade workers are women (1.2% of construction workers, 4.8% of welders, 2.4% of electricians, 1.7% of carpenters, 1.6% of plumbers and 1.2% of HVAC technicians).

The bottom line is those women who are trade workers, enjoy successful, fulfilling careers.

  1. Trades Work is dangerous, requiring long workdays, a lot of overtime, and is too physically demanding to sustain long-term

Sure, some jobs in the trades have an element of danger. But some are less dangerous than others. While construction and roofing are considered to be the more dangerous skilled trades, facilities maintenance trades carry much less risk. With regular safety training, safety certifications and oversight from OSHA, much of risk is reduced.

Trades workers who are relied on and who take on large or urgent projects may be asked to work evenings, weekends, and overtime. That said, there are plenty of skilled trade jobs that keep a more regular Monday to Friday schedule.

And, while the work can be physically demanding, there’s plenty of opportunity to remain in the industry long-term – obviously so, as the average age is 55!  There’s plenty of room for career (and salary) growth in the skilled trades. Apprenticeship programs can lead to master certifications, and positions in the trades can range from entry-level to high-level management.

  1. Skilled Trades don’t pay well, and they don’t provide benefits 

It’s long been a myth that skilled trades are low-paying jobs. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. And many equate the trades to “cash-for-labor” jobs with no real benefits. Again, simply not true. Nearly 70% of workers in the trades receive retirement benefits and over 80% are entitled to medical benefits and paid leave.

  1. Trades are for people who won’t succeed in college or are for people who can’t afford a post-secondary education

A common myth about the trades is that it’s an industry for those who aren’t “smart enough” for college or can’t afford a college education.  Vo-tech schools have been known to be facetiously referred to as “slow-tech schools”.

In addition to physical skills, trades workers also use skills in science, math, and reading comprehension. And most trades workers happily choose their career…pursuing their passion for technical work or for the job opportunities that a career in the trades affords them.

Although the skilled trades industry faces this stigma every day, it does seem to be getting marginally better. With the development of more and more employer-educator coalitions, and the use of targeted social media campaigns, these perceptions are fading (somewhat) and more people are recognizing what a career in the skilled trades can offer.

The bottom line is that we can collectively ‘move the needle’ on filling the skilled labor shortage by wearing down the negative perceptions, which in turn influences the population to fairly consider a career in the trades.  A career in the skilled trades can be fun, and rewarding, offering secure and well-paying work, with limitless future possibilities.  Many good reasons to build a career in the trades!

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