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Blue Collar Trades: A Path to Prosperity, Success & Meaning

Blue Collar Trades: A Path to Prosperity, Success & Meaning
By: Steven Long

There is a dark cloud upon us that could very well turn into a full blown hurricane if something doesn’t change quickly. There is a shortage in the trades that is getting worse by the year. When I say trades, I am talking about the noble work that includes HVAC Installers and Technicians, Plumbers, Welders, Electricians, Carpenters, Masons, Roofers, etc., I could go on and on.

What has caused this shortage you might ask? I am not a professional researcher, but I have personally experienced a few things that I think have brought us to where we are. As I was graduating high school in 1988, myself and most or all of my classmates were encouraged to work toward attending a 4 year university as the only path to success. Learning a trade was never discussed and frankly, it was frowned upon. Those wanting to get into the trades were looked down upon. I was lucky that my summer job was in the HVAC world so I was exposed to trade work early in my life. This view has continued to be at the forefront since then and continues today, even though there is some push back and more discussion today about the value of the Trades as compared to 30 years ago. It has gotten to the point where some trades are seeing a 5 to 1 retirement exchange. What I mean is that for every five tradesman (let me be clear that this does not apply to every single trade) that retire, only one new person is coming into that trade. This is a situation that will have some real serious consequences in the coming years.

A Path to Prosperity & Success

What all this means is there are some serious opportunities out there for young people to redefine their career and long term success. Here is a real scenario we see playing itself out across the country. Two 18 year olds just graduated high school. The first has decided they are attending a 4 year college as they are convinced this is the better path to success. Over that 4 years, they rack up $ 200,000 in college debt and do graduate (this doesn’t take into account that many college students take more than 4 years to graduate). They are unable to find the job they want exactly or even if they do, the average starting salary last year was close to $ 50,000/year. They should be congratulated for the achievement but are saddled with a lot of debt that will take years to overcome. The second high school graduate decided to go work for an HVAC company as an apprentice at age 18. He/she starts out $ 14/hour and this company happens to have both a scholarship program at the local community college and a tuition reimbursement program for employees, either of which can be taken advantage of. This individual takes advantage of the tuition reimbursement program, makes $ 30k in year one, $ 40k in year 2 during which the 2 year associates degree is completed and they begin their career as a full time Service Technician making $ 50k - 60k (this can increase to as much as $90k and over $ 100k over time). After 4 years, one individual has personally made close to $ 200,000 dollars working, has built their experience and may even be living in their own home while the first individual is starting their working career $ 200,000 in debt. Yes, that is a $ 400,000 swing by the age of 22 - 23. That same individual working for the HVAC Company could possibly have a leg up on the college graduate in the career path game as well. I should clarify that this isn’t something that happens 100% of the time, but I have personally seen this situation occur. I have found that companies, including ours, are more interested in what an individual can accomplish in the real world as opposed to how many years of formal education someone has. In our company, the majority of our leadership team do not have a 4 year degree. The career path in the trades can look exactly the same as the college graduates and maybe even faster. This could lead from apprentice to field technician to field team leader to project manager to division team leader to regional/group manager to company owner.

A Path to Meaning

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing people use this type of phrase, “He’s only a plumber”, or “he decided to just go to tech school to be an HVAC technician.” What in the world does that mean and what message does that send to kids trying to decide what to do after graduating from high school? Unfortunately, I have heard school counselors, parents, teachers and even our own team members make statements such as this. In fact, there may have been a time when I was guilty of this. I have come to realize though that there is nothing nobler than working in the trades. Where else can you insure that people are comfortable and breathing clean air in their homes? Where else can you help homeowners live dry and safely in their homes? Where else can you insure that someone’s crawlspace is not full of moisture and biological growth? Where else can you keep someone’s home sanitary and clean? I could go on and on. The trades literally keep people alive and healthy. There is nothing nobler than protecting someone’s home, their environment and helping them enhance their health and quality of life. This is what those of us in the trade world are doing every single day. Nothing is more meaningful or noble than this.

There’s a classic story about 3 individuals laying bricks. All three were on a scaffold working side by side rebuilding St. Paul’s Cathedral after it had burned down in the 1600’s. One was crouched, one half-standing and one was standing tall, working very hard and fast. The first bricklayer was asked, “What are you doing?” To which he replied, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.” The second bricklayer responded, “I’m a builder. I’m building a wall.” But the third bricklayer, the most productive of the three and the future leader of the group responded, “I’m a cathedral builder. I’m building a great cathedral to The Almighty.” I believe this parable is an example of what’s missing in the trade world. Too many people are hearing that if you work in the trades that all you are doing is “Going to work to feed my family” as opposed to the reality of transforming lives which is really what is going on when the work is done as it should be. The world would literally stop without the work being done by blue collar tradespeople.

I feel I am on a mission to spread this message and help others see what is possible through a career in the trades. Of course, I am personally biased toward the HVAC and Commercial Roofing industry but every single trade job is noble, will provide meaning to the individual worker and serve a greater purpose for the overall good of their community.