Trade jobs provide reliable income and steady employment. Why aren’t they attracting more workers?
When many people think of trade jobs—which encompass a range of careers including electrician, plumber, ironworker, HVAC technician, welder, and more—few consider them to be what are traditionally seen as “good” jobs. They do not have the prestige that many white collar jobs have, and are often viewed as lower class work.
This is a shame, because trade work is not only fulfilling for many people, it also offers median salaries above $50K a year for many jobs, with additional opportunities for those with specialized skills. Moreover, many of these jobs are in high demand, especially as older workers are retiring from the workforce, creating concerns over a looming skills gap for many essential jobs. They are also jobs that are resistant to automation and offshoring, meaning they aren’t likely to disappear any time soon.
Despite these advantages, many community colleges are struggling to attract students to programs that would prepare them for a career in trades. However, there are strategies community colleges can follow to create a better recruitment plan for their skilled trades courses. Here are just a few.
Talk to local high schools, especially those with shop classes.
Many young adults use their high school years to explore interests and discover areas of strength. High schools that are equipped with workshops not only give students a practical way to put what they are learning in math or science class to use, they also offer an opportunity for those students to test out skills in carpentry, welding, or electrical work.
If high schools in your area have these facilities, consider discussing with them ways for them to create a stronger shop program—perhaps even in conjunction with your community college.
Build partnerships with local businesses and trade unions.
Training new trade workers is an investment. Some businesses run programs to build their workforce from within, and many trade unions have apprenticeship programs, but for both businesses and unions working with a community college is often the more attractive option.
Community colleges can create trade programs in partnership with both businesses and unions to ensure that the education students receive aligns with current working conditions and expectations. Meanwhile, students benefit from going through a program that can help them network with future employers.
Create an educational marketing campaign that can help prospective students make an informed decision.
Many community colleges understand the need to market their programs without knowing where to start. The answer is more straightforward than they realize: with the facts.
While the temptation is often to paint a job in rosy colors, our experience in community college marketing shows that when community colleges are open about the positives and negatives of a trade career, they are more likely to attract students who both commit to that career path and find success once they graduate. A few of these realities include:
1. Trade jobs are physically demanding.
Very few trade jobs happen at a desk. They require hands-on labor, often on-location at a construction site, in a factory, or in someone’s home. For many students, this can be a draw, rather than a deterrent. However, the manual labor, whether it’s hauling heavy loads up a flight of stairs or getting down on hands and knees to access a tight space under a sink, can take its toll.
Students should be prepared for this, not only so they can take good care of their bodies while they are young and able, but so they can think about how they want their careers to evolve as they become older and less physically capable.
2. Work can be seasonal.
Again, the seasonality of trade work can be a pro or a con, depending on the lifestyle a student is interested in. Working as a landscaper in a northern state may mean a packed spring and summer season, followed by a slow winter. Outdoor work can also mean spending days under the blazing sun in the summer, followed by freezing temperatures during the winter.
Many people who work trade jobs learn to plan their annual budgets so that they can enjoy the greater free time that their seasonal schedule allows during the slow times. Others find a complementary skill that they can transition to when one kind of work dries up.
3. Some jobs require extra travel.
Travel can be a requirement or an opportunity, depending on your preferences. Trades like welding or salvage work, in particular, can involve longer projects where workers stay on-site for the duration of the assignment. This is a significant downside for anyone who wants a stable daily routine, but it also can mean some hefty bonuses for those who have the flexibility—and the desire—to travel for work.
For instance, underwater welders combine diving with welding work, and spend their time repairing dams, bridges, docks, marine vessels, and oil rigs. Some of these jobs, particularly those stationed offshore, have assignments that may last weeks at a time. But the nature of the work, and the overtime pay involved, means that experienced welders can earn up to six figure incomes.
4. Educational and licensing requirements vary by state.
Professional training for trade jobs comes in many forms. For some industries, training happens on the job, or through an apprenticeship program. In other cases, certification or an associate’s degree may be required.
Even when formal education isn’t required, it is often a valuable way for a student to improve their hiring prospects, demonstrate their commitment to a line of work, and gain a niche specialization.
5. Joining a union may be difficult, but worthwhile.
Finally, many trade industries have active unions that can help members gain benefits that include higher wages, paid holidays, healthcare, and more. However, getting a union job is not straightforward, as competition can be tight. While some unions have apprenticeship programs that can offer a path in, many also want to see applicants who already have some kind of experience.
The important thing for students to remember is that they are not guaranteed a place in a union. Joining one may require extra networking and a few years of work in the field, so they should plan accordingly.
If you want to interest students in a program, show them what a career looks like.
Helping students find pride in their chosen career path shouldn’t involve sugarcoating the day-to-day experience of working a trade job. And as much as community colleges may want to combat the stigma around trade work, they only do their students a disservice if they aren’t preparing them for the realities of their chosen career.
On the other hand, providing accurate, reliable information about employment opportunities and career paths can attract students to programs that are a good fit for their skills and the lives they want to live after they graduate. This is at the core of our own community college marketing strategy: community colleges need to market careers, not degrees.
If you are interested in launching a marketing campaign for your community college that focuses on reliable, career-driven information, we can help. Our marketing team researches and assembles a library of content based on job market data and employment statistics so that community colleges who work with us can easily create content for prospective students that will help set them on the right path toward a career. Contact us to learn more.