Skilled trade jobs go unfilled in our robust economy

Known as blue collar jobs, they routinely pay $45,000 to $65,000 a year or more.

Millions of college graduates find themselves saddled with crushing debt and more than a third of them won’t be working in their chosen profession. Many will be working for low wages.

Meanwhile, there are millions of high-paid jobs are available in the skilled trades – electricians, plumbers, manufacturing workers, pipefitters, mechanics, appliance repair, computer techs, medical assistants and welders. Known as blue collar jobs, they routinely pay $45,000 to $65,000 a year or more. According to Salary.com, the average heavy equipment operator in Seattle earns more than $95,000 a year in wages and benefits.

From 2016 to 2021, job openings in manufacturing, production, installation, maintenance and repair are projected to outstrip the supply of skilled workers by three-to-one. To compete, many employers are not only providing scholarships, but even paying students to attend a technical school and offering internships.

They are stepping up their recruitment of military men and women leaving active duty because of their experience, training and dependability.

Why is there a shortage of skilled craft workers? One reason, we’ve tended to look down on those jobs.

My father, for example, inadvertently perpetuated that attitude. As a World War II vet, he used the GI bill to become an electrician. Even though he rose to the rank of master electrician and made a good living for his family, he pushed his kids to go to college. Despite his accomplishments, he felt a trade school education was second best.

True, studies show that, over a lifetime, college degrees may translate into higher incomes. But as they say, the devil is in the details.

First, you have to factor in the crushing burden of student loans which often take years to repay. In fact, the average student loan debt continues to grow. (Class of 2016 graduates was $37,172, up six percent from the previous year).

Americans now owe over $1.48 trillion in student loans which is spread out among 44 million borrowers. That’s $620 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt, the website Student Loan Hero recently reported. Now, the average monthly student loan payment (for borrower aged 20 to 30 years) is $351.

In many cities housing costs alone have escalated to the point that grads are either forced to share cramped quarters or move back home. As of June 2017, average apartment rent in Seattle was $2210 a month.

The Gazette-Review in Minneapolis pegs the average 2018 college grad will earn $50,000 annually.

“However, one should take this number with a great deal of salt. A diploma alone won’t secure this sort of salary in many cases, as there are many other factors to take into account,” it reported last week. Graduates with math, engineering, science and technical degrees fare better than those who majored in the liberal arts.

Mike Rowe, who hosted the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” says we need to hit the reset button on higher education. He argues we should not be lending money to students who have no hope of making it back. Rowe believes many of the best career opportunities today require a skill, not a diploma.

To expand those opportunities, Rowe founded the mikeroweWORKS Foundation that awards trade school and apprenticeship program scholarships to young people who show both an interest and an aptitude for mastering a specific trade.

It doesn’t make sense for our country to primarily focus on college education when half of our career opportunities are for skilled workers. Ironically, in the real world, one of those trade school graduates will be called to the apartment of a struggling college grad to fix their plumbing for $200 an hour.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

More in Business

No green cheese, drill sergeant | Don Brunell

What is the wisdom in space exploration?

Wapiti Woolies legacy continues with new owners

John and Karlyn Clark just bought the Greenwater business in June. But don’t worry — the huckleberry ice cream isn’t going anywhere.

Family-owned businesses are the backbone of America | Don Brunell

Family businesses account for 50 percent of our country’s GDP.

Clark touts benefits of Sound Birth method

Kelly Clark has a rather specific audience for her professional services. As… Continue reading

Tourists bring dollars to mountain communities

More than 1.5 million people came to Mount Rainier in 2018, and spent $55 million in nearby communities.

Keeping things natural come Hell or High Water

Desiree and Kevin Helfrick started their garden in a Seattle apartment. Now they’re in charge of 5 acres, growing organic veggies and taking care of their chickens.

Rogers opens chiropractic practice

Beau Rogers played college baseball until a career-ending injury, leading him down the path of chiropractics.

“Normandy Clicker” D-Day innovation

American troops were ingenious on the battlefield.

Max fix critical to Washington | Don Brunell

Things were going great until the two 737 Max crashes.

Could Seattle put on a World’s Fair today?

You have to wonder if a project of this scope and magnitude could happen today with endless hoops to jump through, mounds of government red-tape and construction costs which were unimaginable in 1960.

Thunder Dome grand opening inches closer to the starting line

The nonprofit museum’s goal is to raise money for epilepsy awareness, as well as provide a new entertainment and event venue for Plateau locals and visitors.

Removing Snake River dams is unwise | Don Brunell

The vast majority of fish that migrate up the fish passage survive.