The Workforce – Essential Workers, The Trades, and COVID

A meme I recently saw on Facebook prompted me to write about essential and non-essential workers which will eventually lead me to talk about the trades. Further, I felt a need to discuss what’s really happening and where I believe we are headed.

Define Essential

During this pandemic, we have learned that Hollywood starlets, professional athletes, and the like are no longer as important or relevant as they once were. In other words, the country goes on whether they act or play. Instead, the unsung heroes are the workers that are essential to the country’s functioning as a productive society. These are the tradespeople, retail workers, first responders, utility workers, transportation workers, and more. They are truly essential. Other essential personnel includes healthcare workers of all sorts, including doctors, nurses, aides, medical technicians, and so on.

One thing that struck me, and I am sure many others, is that many of the professions that I mentioned above are looked at as lower on the totem pole of societal success. More so, they are regarded as just a job – and not a career. While being a doctor or nurse is admirable, how many other medical jobs fall into the “just a job” category as well?

The underlying truth is that this country does not work without all types of workers. There is a career path for everyone and, as a result, University or College simply is not for everyone.

The Decision: University vs. Trade School

There has been a push over the last few decades to get high school graduates into universities, and away from the trades. This has caused the construction industry workforce to age. As a matter of fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, 69% of construction workers are in their prime working years, which defined as ages 25-54, with 42.5 being the average age. In actuality, the average age of a certain trade may be much higher. Unfortunately, when these older workers retire, there is a huge knowledge base that leaves the industry without anyone to pass the torch on to. The apprentice that devotes themselves to their program and is lucky enough to have the opportunity to work under one of these masters of their craft will learn more from them than anything that they will learn in trade school.

While university or college may be a good idea for some, we have already determined it is not for everyone. We all know someone who, for lack of a better term, has a ‘useless’ degree in something like humanities who then enters the workforce and becomes a realtor or some other path that doesn’t require a degree. Now there is certainly nothing wrong with being a realtor, but why would you spend years of your life and hundreds of thousands of dollars for a degree that has no impact on your future career – isn’t that the whole point? This is where the value of trades comes in. The programs offer low tuition costs to students that ensure they graduate with little to no student debt. Oh, and let’s not forget, they finish their program with a guaranteed job that pays well and has many opportunities and career paths as they gain more experience in their respective field.

Benefits of Being in a Trade

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has published that Construction tradespeople experience better overall employment. Possibly the best part of starting in a trade is that you “earn while you learn.” An electrical apprentice, for example, will work in the field and go to school at night to learn the theory part of the curriculum and get paid during the day for on-the-job training.

In doing research for this article, I determined that there are approximately ¾ of a million Electrician openings available in the United States, and that’s not even counting the demand for Electrical Estimators and Project Managers! I was also impressed to find out that the National Electrical Contractors’ Association (NECA) has a program to recruit young people into the electrical trade in underserved communities. It is truly great to see an industry organization actively working to recruit into the industry.

The COVID Effect on Trades

Since we touched on the trades, I thought I would give you an update on how the Coronavirus Pandemic has affected how business is currently being conducted. Although the remote workplace has affected mentoring and peer relationships, some good things are happening as well, and these things are saving companies time and money.

Pre-construction meetings and job walkthroughs are now being held via Zoom, thereby eliminating the time required to drive to the job site. In addition, bid openings and weekly job meetings are also being held via Zoom. Zoom and other teleconferencing platforms have been wonderful tools for companies of all types, enabling communication between employees, clients, and more. I do wonder if we’ll ever go back to the “old ways” of face-to-face meetings, and business as usual or if this is the new normal. We shall see.

I know I started this article discussing essential versus non-essential workers. Regardless of the situation, there will always be a need for tradespeople. That need will grow based on the aging workforce unless we continue to promote the trades as a solid way of living. When I think about attracting younger workers into the trades, all I can think of is how they embrace technology, like something as simple as these Zoom meetings. So, when your teenager expresses an interest in electrical, mechanical, HVAC, plumbing, carpentry, or the like, encourage them! It’s an honorable way to make a great living.

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