How Skilled Trades Can Help Rural Americans

Skilled trades could provide a path to a stable, middle-class career for rural Americans in need of expedient economic help. Income inequality remains a serious concern for those outside major metropolitan areas. Thankfully, there are a few decided advantages to choosing a skilled trade as a career path — especially considering rising student debt, wage stagnation, costs of living, and uncertain employment options.

Skilled work - constructionThe need for skilled tradespeople is high, considering the recent tendency of younger students to attend traditional four-year colleges as opposed to trade or vocational schools. This makes traditionally blue-collar careers potentially more stable than more competitive fields like law or finance. The trend is for younger students to gravitate toward college and academia rather than trade industries like construction or electrical engineering.

The current skilled trades gap is also due, in part, to the retirement and impending retirement of the baby boomer generation. The Associated General Contractors of America conducted a survey finding that approximately 62 percent of firms are unable to fill skilled trade positions, in part due to the rapid rate of attrition as a result of baby boomers retiring in large numbers.

Sometimes, skilled trades can give women an advantage they may not otherwise have in being self-sufficient and not having to rely on paying exorbitant college tuition fees. However, this all depends on how fairly they are treated in the workplace, compared to men. Although skilled trades should be open to all job seekers, regardless of gender, the barriers to entry can be high considering that women represent only 4 percent of those employed in natural resources, construction, and maintenance.

For this reason, nontraditional students may opt for an online college education in a field that allows for more flexible and remote job possibilities. According to Arizona State University, “The proportion of professional women with a college degree in the United States more than tripled from 1970 to 2013, from 11% to 39%. Today, women make up nearly 50% of the U.S. workforce and 51% of corporate professionals.”

These statistics beg the question: is it what you know or who you know, when it comes to career advancement in different industries and career fields? Without continuing to delve into the thorny issue of gender bias — that’s a topic for an entire book or web series — one thing is certain: we need more diversity when it comes to skill sets in the U.S., and skilled trades is one area in which we are falling behind.

Although the dominant message to high school students is definitely, “Apply to college,”we need more tradespeople. Not only is college not for everyone, but vocational fields need students from all walks of life — including those from middle-class and more affluent communities — to learn the skills necessary to succeed in trades like electrical engineering and welding.

In rural and lower-to-middle income households, especially, education and internships are crucial to economic mobility. However, according to The Atlantic, “ … [While] women across socioeconomic classes are embracing the idea that education is important and are pursuing postsecondary degrees, many men from lower-income households are not.” Some speculate that boys from low-income families struggle in school more than girls do. Research suggests that behavioral problems in boys can be more detrimental because they can get kicked out of school, which only leads them further down the proverbial school-to-prison pipeline.

Indeed, not all public schools are created equal due to differences in local median socioeconomic and racial distribution. For some students, farm work or auto body work may be more motivating than college — at least for a while. It’s not necessary, for example, for high school graduates to go directly to college. Many take a year or two off to travel, work locally, and think about what direction they want to take, career-wise, over the next few years.

For example, according to The New York Times, guidance counselor Angela Locke recently told parents of seniors at a parent-teacher conference at Topeka High that “College is not the only option …  Sometimes it’s not even the best option.” Part of the reason for this is the changing economy. Locke recounted the job market during her college graduation days compared to today’s college graduates, implying that “a very good job could no longer be taken for granted.”

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work with your hands every day? To smell the sawdust being made by a chainsaw — the sound of wood being cut and nails being pounded into boards, exposed to sun and rain in the open air?

Are you considering switching careers, or are you contemplating whether to attend college or trade school? What are your experiences as a tradesperson, if applicable? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Avery PhillipsAvery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.