Kevin Lee Hepner

Skilled labor force may have last laugh

By Kevin Lee Hepner
February 12, 2009
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ROB T. WAS finishing up his first year of college when his dad died. He never returned. Nicole W. dropped out of high school when she got pregnant. What do Rob and Nicole have in common? Both are - despite the downturn in the economy - getting more work than they can handle, are paid good salaries, and are enjoying more job security than most people they know. What sets them apart? They went into the skilled labor force.

There is a sharp disconnect in the workforce development/educational policy world regarding this issue. A clarion call has been made: Jobs in the "new economy" all require at minimum a four-year college degree. The argument is that, in the past 25 years, workforce needs have changed. Indeed they have, but for society to function it still needs individuals trained to take care of wires, pipes, cars, trains, buses and gadgets. The recent Boston fire truck brake-failure tragedy is a stark reminder of the need for these trained individuals.

Yet in the eagerness to raise the bar for high schools and community colleges, policymakers have a misguided notion that a college diploma is the only key to success. Those data analysts and financial services workers who are now queuing up in unemployment lines found their diplomas scant protection from the harshness of the marketplace.

The thing is, you may be able to outsource your accountant, but you can't outsource your auto mechanic. Plumbers and electricians are as busy as ever, continuing to pull down respectable paychecks while in many cases enjoying the entrepreneurial flexibility of being a small-business owner.

Take the proverbial Joe the Plumber. Although only a contractor large enough to hire 10 or more employees might hit the $250,000 annual income discussed in the recent presidential campaign, the salary range for most full-time skilled tradespeople is $50,000 to $120,000 per year. And those trained in administrative skills can grow their business from there. My nephew, a licensed plumber in his 20s, decided to start his own plumbing company and within his first year was able to purchase his own van and backhoe, and hired his first employee.

Want more statistics? The average age of a licensed electrician and plumber is 55. Many will soon be retiring, so there is a growing need for new folks to enter the field.

So why do so few high school students and un- or underemployed adults go into these careers? Well, society has changed, and one unfortunate change has been a growing disrespect for manual labor, for those who build, who repair, who make things new. How many guidance counselors are pitching the trades as a viable option to their students?

We need to build strong partnerships to move low-income people into the skilled trades. Apprenticeship programs, G.E.D. programs, unions, community colleges, business schools, the private sector, and public entities need to join forces.

Governor Patrick is leading the way with some important legislation. The Green Jobs Act authorizes grants for clean-energy technology to nonprofits; workforce development grants to state higher education, vocational schools, and nonprofits; and low-income job training. We need to include in this rising tide the impoverished ancestors of those who literally built this nation, and also the new immigrants who often bring skilled labor with them to these shores. The building trades should be a cornerstone of the yellow brick career path to bright futures and financial independence.

Kevin Lee Hepner is president and CEO of United South End Settlements in Boston.

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