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  • John Cannon

Are schools solely to blame for a dwindling skilled trade work force?



Yesterday I shared a story that talked about the shrinking skilled trade work force and it created a lot of interest. It talked about how the primary schools push kids towards college and the lack of opportunities for students to learn about occupations working with their hands. I do think this is a problem, but I also think it is a symptom of a bigger problem.

Why is this happening in schools? It’s pretty simple. Primary education is essentially run by a school board or committee, which are often comprised of people with a higher education degree and in may cases they are parents of children in the system. The people who join school committees are typically interested in higher education. So if school committees are charting the course then why wouldn’t they be focused on sending all the students to the best colleges. After all, that is how schools are ranked, and many people pick their residential community based on school rankings. I do think this is a problem, but I also think it is a symptom of the bigger problem.

I suggest that the bigger problem is how society views the industry. We have a society that judges people on how they dress and if they get dirty. For example, why do high end restaurants have dress codes? If you are a corporate executive and want to take one of your plumbers to lunch, you cannot select a high end restaurant. What kind of a message is that sending?

On the policy side, we have federal laws for exempt and non-exempt staff. Salaried workers are exempt and typically have higher salaries and better benefits. I worked at a college in an exempt position and received 1.66 days of vacation per month. Non-exempt start at .83 days/month and have to work for 15 years to earn 1.66 days. Non-exempt have to punch a time clock (because they can’t be trusted?) but exempt can work from remote locations. Why is this acceptable and why would any parent not want more for their children?

When you take a step back and ask yourself, why do most kids go to college, the answers are probably something like this;

  • That is what my friends are doing and students are generally competitive which is why they want to select the most prestigious school where they are accepted.

  • I want to play college sports.

  • There are many clubs and activities to belong to.

  • I want to move out of the house and get the college experience.

  • I can make more money.

  • It is just what you do.

  • Both my parents and my siblings went to college.

  • They won’t say this out loud but I think the number one reason is to make their parents proud.


There is really nothing wrong with any of these answers other than the cost benefit analysis only considers college “A” vs “B”.


So how can we improve the perception of this work?


The skilled labor shortage is a critical problem that will not go away on it’s own. It is an easy target to focus on the school system, but much more is needed to solve the problem. As a nation, we have to treat the non-exempt segment of the work force as equal partners to success. This can start with changing laws and policies for every organization in the nation. Maybe instead of the government paying off college debt, it can lower the tax rate for non-exempt employees in the service industry. Unfortunately there is a lot that has to be changed in the skilled labor force before parents will encourage their children to enter these occupations.


We could start by providing them with equal benefits. Maybe in some situations, it will require better benefits since their jobs can be physically demanding and their bodies might not hold out to retirement.


Look at every job function and figure out how to make it safer, easier and sometimes less disgusting.


Here is a random thought for construction sites. If you want to attract more workers, set a policy of using trailer bathrooms instead of the portable toilets. They will love you! My guess is that there are many instances of apprentices who decide to leave the field after a trip to the portable toilet on a very hot or freezing day.

Imagine sitting in there when the back-up alarm is sounding.

Many people working in this field are also essential personnel and must be on-call and respond to emergencies. This is such a critical function. Make it worth their while financially and make sure they also have the time to be away from work without disruption.


This list can be huge and possibly expensive, but there is a lot of opportunity to re-examine the industry at this point in time when business are figuring out their return to work strategies.


Once people will see that it is a great opportunity, students will want to enter the field forcing schools to adapt their programs. It’s not going to happen overnight but we have to start somewhere.


Let’s keep this conversation going. I would greatly appreciate any comments and feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

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