Why We Need to Build a Better Trades Workforce — And How to Build It

Many recent graduates are turned off by the idea of four more years of school. And, unfortunately, they often don't understand the value of less traditional trade school.
We Need to Build a Better Trades Workforce
Buildstrong Academy is reimagining tradeschool.

Forget, “No one wants to work anymore.” The lament now might be, “No one knows they can launch a high-paying career without incurring student debt.” Employers in construction, manufacturing and other skilled trades are facing an ongoing labor shortage. Meanwhile, students are attending four-year colleges, borrowing large sums and accepting entry-level jobs that do not cover the loans plus living expenses.

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Why don’t people just sign up for classes in welding, machining or carpentry, earn a certificate, and make a high-paying salary right away? Employers and educators say the answer is complicated.  

According to the Common Sense Institute in its report, “The Price of Higher Education in Colorado,” since 2002 tuition and in-state fees have grown more than 240%. Separately, the Inflation Calculator, using CPI data, notes that inflation from 2002 to October 2022 was 53%.  

While students are pursuing careers that demand four-year degrees, the skilled trades are facing a talent gap. “In construction, we have 185,000 employed in Colorado,” says Dave Davia, executive vice president and CEO of Rocky Mountain Mechanical Contractors Association (RMMCA). “By 2030 we will need 50,000 more.”  

Davia, who is on the CSI board of directors, says there is a stigma associated with these jobs. “High schools in the ’80s started taking shop and hands-on learning out of the schools, and it was replaced by college for all,” he says. “The perception is trades are a fallback.”  

Training Tradespeople  

To change this perception, RMMCA and other contractor associations established Western States College of Construction, which offers professional programs for HVAC/R (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning, Refrigeration), pipefitting, plumbing and sheet metal. The programs, which are located on 10 campuses throughout the state, consist of four to five years of on-the-job and related instruction. Students do not pay tuition, as employers sponsor them.

The school’s website notes that during apprenticeships, students can earn salaries of $78,000 to $80,000, and earn more after completion. That’s higher than the average annual salary in Colorado, which ZipRecruiter reported at $56,716 in October.

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According to the Colorado Talent Pipeline Report, there has been strong demand for workers in construction and manufacturing, and the pandemic played a role. There has been a surge in residential construction in the state, with building permits increasing by 50 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis between April 2020 and July 2021. Supply chain disruptions sped up the shift from global to domestic manufacturing.  

Also according to the report, organizations that are struggling to find talent need to shift from degree-based hiring to skills-based. Some educators agree. “We should all be thinking about our skills and our trades and what it is we want to do,” says Linda Van Doren, Ed.D., vice president of education for Emily Griffith Technical College. “It doesn’t have to happen in that traditional pathway of college right after high school.”   

That pathway is not necessary for everyone, Dr. Van Doren says, and it’s not financially attainable for many. Emily Griffith Technical College offers financial aid and scholarships, and some programs are Pell Grant eligible. Students can work at job sites where they get feedback, learn how to work with teams and improve their problem-solving skills. “Softer skills like teamwork, critical thinking, communication, those are things that are still valued by employers,” she says. “Those are elements we bake into all our programs as well.”  

Another challenge is that some parents don’t want their kids to attend trade school. “We’re in a place where we’ve tended to devalue certain professions and held others up,”  Van Doren says.  

Changing Careers 

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the mean hourly wage for construction and extraction in 2021 was $26.18. That’s lower than the $30.24 for the state mean hourly wage for all occupations, but higher than sales and related ($25.73) and food preparation and serving ($16.26).  

Many trades students are adult learners leaving low-paying jobs. “The workforce of tomorrow is in the workforce today,” says Matthew Sweeney, dean of workforce services at Rocky Mountain Education Center (RMEC) of Red Rocks Community College. “We identify how we can better identify where there might be people who are underemployed and can transition.”

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High school students are not the best audience for this messaging. “They are not thinking about stability or job benefits,” Sweeney says. “They are thinking, I am so sick of school.” Adult students are making a transition, or in some cases, are sent to RRCC by employers to update skills such as safety training to comply with OSHA regulations.  

Trades jobs have become safer over the years, and that has helped generate interest. “If you go back in time, trades were dangerous, dirty and looked down upon because of those factors,” says Kevin A Dowell, lead trainer in welding and corporate training at Community College of Denver Advanced Manufacturing Center. “That’s no longer the case.”  

Dowell adds that students like the idea of starting a new career without the time and expense of a four-year degree, and are interested in specific attributes of each trade. For example, the machining classes appeal to people who like the predictability and consistency of the work. Welding is attractive to people who like repetitive work, and to creative people. (In fact, CCD also offers a noncredit welding-for-artists workshop.) “Some of these occupations really only attract a small part of the population,” Dowell says. “But to people who it does appeal to, nothing is a better fit.”   

At BuildStrong Academy of Colorado, the average age of students is low to mid-30s, and they see opportunities in construction. “A lot of times, they have no experience,” says career coach Kristin Davenport. “They have never picked up a tape measure or worked with a circular saw. We are empowering them to see there is this whole world out there.”  

BuildStrong Academy offers boot camps that are four weeks (four sessions a week) or eight weeks (two nights per week), as well as courses in concrete, carpentry, electrical and others. The classes cover construction skills and life skills. “One hundred percent of the employers say they are looking for people who show up and do the job,” Davenport says. “They have tried the more traditional methods of hiring, and if they are getting applications at all, they are getting people who may not even schedule an interview, or they may last a week.”  

A scholarship fund covers the cost of tuition, and employers are hiring graduates quickly. “We’re going to see a lot more programs like this,” Davenport says. “Employers are willing to be open-minded about their hiring practices.”  

Employers are also building their own workforce development programs. The general contractor Swinerton in 2020 launched the Swinerton Craft Technical Skills Training Program. It is based on National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) curricula and offers carpentry, drywall and construction craft labor apprenticeship programs.  

“When we think about our approach to workforce development, it isn’t just to get people out of high school and into apprenticeships,” says Kerry Swain, director, field talent partner. “We created a career blueprint for them.”  

Swinerton also offers the Foremen Development Series, which focuses on helping foremen develop the soft and technical skills they need to become better foremen and prepare them to take the next step in their career to superintendent. “Some of the people we recruit, we realize they may not work with us for their whole career, and that’s fine,” Swain says. “Our goal is to raise the competency levels.”

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