Here’s a Commentary by Mary Hatch that appeared in the November 1, 2023, issue of the Mecklenburg Sun titled “Let’s remove tradespeople from the nation’s endangered list“.

We need to add a category to the endangered species list: Tradespeople.

They are hard to find, very valuable and we need literally millions more — 5.898 million more each year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. That staggering number encompasses 1.2 million more construction workers, electricians, welders, plumbers, pipefitters, mechanical engineers, HVAC installers, auto mechanics, and sheet metal fabricators. Another 2.2 million workers are needed in hospitality, 2.3 million in healthcare, 198,000 in agriculture and 3,000 in forestry — altogether totaling 5.898 million jobs to fill. Yes, we have a crisis: the Baby Boomers are retiring and they come from a generation that was taught the trades with shop classes in high school and trade schools (mainly carpentry). We also were taught the trades from labor unions, junior colleges, trade schools, and apprenticing.

One of the main problems in fulfilling these jobs is the stigma many parents have, thinking a four-year college degree is more prestigious than skilled labor, even though there is a 40% dropout rate at four-year colleges and a 1% for apprenticeship programs. After two years of an apprenticeship program, the average pay nationwide is $56,600. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics). Many skilled trades people I know own several rental homes and take a lot of vacations. In the fifth grade, my teacher used to make the comment, “If you don’t improve your grades, you will all become ditch diggers.” Even at that age I knew there were more trades than ditch diggers: the plumbers and electricians that came to our homes always had nice trucks.

One of my brothers said he learned enough about carpentry in high school shop class to make great money in Hawaii framing homes. He came back to the mainland, started a roofing business and then bought a ranch. Another brother, apprenticed as a horse trainer in Montana, took a job with the forestry service in Wyoming to train wild Mustangs, track mountain lion and bear, and repair cabins, fences, and barns. Out of six children, my two brothers in the trades were the most successful and loved their careers — they did very well and loved their occupations.

The stigma seemed to have come from the Depression-era parents who went to college free on the G.I. Bill after the war and wanted their children to go to college to “have a better life.” In my family, we all knew my U.S. Forest Ranger brother was going to be working with animals and in the wild when he was five years old. He used to go to kindergarten wearing his Daniel Boone outfit. including a coonskin cap and long rifle. He couldn’t have imagined “a better life.” He once told me he couldn’t believe he got paid for what he did. I told him I hoped he was paid enough. My father later in life realized his dreams were not his children’s dreams and they were happy and successful.

In this country, we need to have same respect for the trades as the European countries do. In Switzerland, 70% of students become apprentices and in the Nordic countries, 60% go into the trades and apprentice programs. Germany is also a leader in the apprenticeship programs. They are currently setting up apprenticeship programs in Spartanburg, Georgia and expanding. Students in high school will earn and learn — without college debt.

What’s surprising about the trades is they have always given our nation a level playing field for the middle class. The trades raised the country’s GDP, increased incomes, and in turn lowered inflation over a span of decades. The period from the 1950s to the 1960s were the golden years for the middle class. Many of my friends’ mothers did not have to work — one head of the family could be the bread winner. We had unions and companies that offered medical and dental coverage and three weeks of vacation time a year.

In the Great Depression, our country was leveled to the ground by the 1929 stock market crash and over 9,000 banks closing. There were approximately 12.8 million people out of work at the height of the Depression. Back then, there were no such systems in place such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP and TANF food assistance, Obamacare, and veterans benefits. There were soup lines wrapped around blocks and streets — families were lucky to get one meal a day.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted the young men who were getting into trouble in the cities to be taught trades, away from drugs and alcohol. He wasn’t sure how he was going to orchestrate this massive project, but his brilliant Secretary of Labor, Francis Perkins, was tapped to organize the venture. It became a collaboration between the military and forest service who set up the camps nationwide. They would train young men in forestry, building bridges, barracks, cabins, trails, and barriers to prevent forest fires. Three million young men were trained in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) camps. My high school history teacher was in one of the camps and said it was the greatest experience of his life. He said he learned enough trades to put himself through college and used these skills the rest of his life. The camps’ camaraderie helped people get through the trying times. Workers were proud to be able to send $25.00 of their $30.00 paychecks home to their folks so they could have food on the table and pay their rent.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit our country like a ton of bricks — almost leveled us to the ground as in the Great Depression. According to Balance.money.com, 20 million jobs were lost during the height of the pandemic and unemployment reached 14.2%. There were almost a million people homeless. Small businesses across the nation were closing, farms had to be subsidized to keep from foreclosure. Donald Trump had to deal with Covid for seven months. Joe Biden has had two-and-a-half years to lead the recovery. Biden’s policies — notably, his Bipartisan Infrastructure bill and Inflation Reduction Act — have accomplished many things, but among them is putting career and technical education programs on steroids.

During his administration, $12 billion has been allocated to community colleges for teaching the trades. Another 137 billion has been earmarked for companies, public school systems, and community colleges to teach skills and create apprenticeships for HVAC techs, electricians, plumbers, roofers and carpenters. $400 billion has gone to improve pay for home health care workers, so family members turned into caregivers can get back into the workforce. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, this two-and-half-year period has seen the fastest economic recovery in over 40 years.

Virginia has an incredible collaboration between trade schools, high schools, middle schools and community colleges. I attended the recent Career Tech Education Showcase event in South Boston and it was extremely well organized with local employers, educators and Southern Virginia Higher Education Center staff in attendance. A full house packed the SVHEC building. As an aside, I saw Trudy Berry there who is running for the 9th District State Senate seat as a write-in candidate. She was talking to many sponsors and teachers. Apprenticeship programs are a main focus of her campaign.

Maybe if we keep the fires burning and can change parents’ attitudes towards the trades, we will be able to find the almost six million tradespeople needed in the future to build back our middle class.