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At the Milwaukee product event last week, a passionate man named Michael Callanan — he’s Executive Director of the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC), and he works with both the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) — spoke to us about a problem with the next generation of skilled workers:  there aren’t enough of them.  Looking ahead, the NJATC has created a program to fully prepare and train electrical apprentices and journeymen, which makes the hip-deep wading through acronyms more than worthwhile.

Michael said the “hands-on” crafts suffer from a bad image nowadays, and the differences in the way things are done now vs. thirty years ago will hurt all of us in the long run — for instance, most parents or counselors today will tell young people that they’re throwing their life away if they don’t go to college.  We’re not saying college isn’t a great place or that it can’t help a young person along their way, but it’s not the only option.

This line of thought got me thinking about how we’re going to train the next generation of workers. Colleges certainly can’t do it, and as the current batch ages and retires, where is the qualified group behind them going to come from?  How will we train them, and what will they have to know ten or twenty years from now?

It’s a large topic that makes my brain hurt, but I think Michael’s impassioned plea to wake up and smell the industry turnover might be a timely call that we need to start listening to now, instead of when it becomes a more serious issue. How do we get the net-savvy, info-hungry kids of today to become interested in being the skilled and qualified electricians and such of tomorrow?

Sure, organizations like the NJATC can help, but as Mr. Callanan said in his presentation, 80,000 people applied and the program could only take 12,000, and the demand drastically outstrips this amount.  We’re in an employment slump right now, but the problem isn’t going to go away — houses and buildings will still need fixing and building in fifteen or twenty years.

It’s an interesting issue, and I don’t think many people want to think about it right now. There’s no glamor or sky-high salaries attached, just a good honest living that provides a much-needed service. My question is, when did that fall out of fashion?

National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee [Website]


10 Responses to Editorial: The Next Generation

  1. Jim German says:

    Thanks to the wonders of capitalism, this isn’t really a problem at all. As the supply of labor goes down, the wages (and associated billing rates) will go up, and then more people will start joining the profession. As prices for hiring electricians and other tradesmen go up, people will learn to do more things for themselves and demand will go down.

    If the demand is dramatically outstripping the amount in the NJATC’s program, they will undoubtedly increase the size of the program.

  2. John says:

    I think the problem is one of generalized blue vs white job preference for today’s young people. No one wants to put in a long hard day of 8-10 hours of labor when you might make substantially more sitting on your duff in an office for the same 8-10 hours. The whole transition of America from one of an industrialized nation outputting things, to one of a service nation outputting “stuff” from the increasing pool of knowledge workers (computer things, lawyers, financial services, etc) will continue and these skills will become harder to learn. If vocational schools remain secondary citizen as compared to colleges and universities, we will never see an increase in people entering the trades.

    As we go further towards becoming a knowledge economy, the trades will be be further pushed down the job preference list. Everyone will want to be a movie star or pro athlete because of the high pay for the amount of work, and then the list will go down from there, with blue collar jobs predictably near the bottom due to their typically high labor/effort per dollar ratio. And as the numbers of skilled workers decrease, their rates will increase as capitalism/economics dictates. There will come a balance and base skills will always remain, but we will undoubtedly lose some of the specialized knowledge.

    Similar issues can probably be raised about all blue collar careers/occupations/trades.

  3. PeterP says:

    I think Mike Rowe is trying to address this through his Mike Rowe Works site. It’s worth checking out.


    The other problem, I suspect, is that almost everyone seems to have horror stories of dealing with a shady contractor, or a plumber who doesn’t finish his work, or of contractors just doing generally substandard work. Even though its a tiny, tiny minority of tradesmen, they still tend to give the trades a bad name. Why would anyone want to go into that field if these are going to be your coworkers?

    I always find it interesting when people claim that we are a post manufacturing society. If you look at the numbers, we produce more than anyone else in the world – more than China and Japan combined!


    The skilled trades are going to be around for a long, long time.

  4. KaiserM715 says:

    This is one topic that has been on my mind a lot recently. There is a high school kid that I know who really wanted to go to trade school to be a mechanic. His parents told him that they would not help him with school unless it is a 4 year degree. He is a smart kid, but I don’t think he would make it in a four program. In fact, for many degrees, he would likely make more as a mechanic. The educational system and media tell you that you must have a 4 yr degree to do anything with your life and at the same time they are cutting high school Vo-tec programs because they don’t map to standardized tests. Expect things to cost more as the skilled labor shortage becomes more pronounced: manufactured goods (machinists), home A/C repair, auto repair (mechanics), etc. We are slowly but surely cutting the middle out. Many of these jobs can be well paying (esp welders, machinists, etc). Most kids these days take three routes (generalized, mind you): (1) work in unskilled labor, (2) Go to college, drop out, work in unskilled labor, (3) Go to college.

  5. Jupe Blue says:

    In my area, a skilled licensed electrician earns ~35.00/hour. A first term apprentice starts at $14.26. How many other entry level jobs do you know start there? I know my first job out of college was no where close to that in today’s dollars. If you have a kid who is interested in a trade, help them find that best suited for their skills and encourage them.

  6. heywood says:

    I’m an IBEW apprentice. I also have a 4-year degree. The important thing for kids or parents of kids who are getting close to graduating to think about is:

    “Is my kid a hands-on, mechanically-inclined person or an academic type?”

    Like a lot of people I grew up with and like most of my family I was pressured to get a 4-year degree. So I got a 4-year degree. I hate, hate HATE sitting at a computer all day long. My body hates it and gets back at me by getting fat and giving me blood-sugar problems.

    Fast forward 5 years, I decided to try my hand at being a sparky. True, not every day is a walk in the park but the day flies by and I make better money than I ever have and can look at what I have achieved at the end of the day and be satisfied.

    In my local, journeyman wiremen make $40/hr. If you are lucky you get to experience all kinds of cool high-power applications and no matter what you learn how to build a whole system of a building from the ground up.

  7. eosha says:

    I’m a recent college graduate with a 4 year degree in physics. 4 years of academia has taught me that I have no desire to be an academic; I much prefer working with my hands.

    Now that it’s time to get a “real job”, a blue-collar path seems much more appropriate for me. But I frankly have no idea where to start, or what’s involved. I’m reading through the website above and it’s opening my eyes,

    Any advice for a complete newbie?

  8. koba says:

    Well Eosha, I have a few bits of advice for you:

    Go Union; the pay, training, and working conditions are better, and it’s easier to go from Union to Non-Union than the other way around.

    Pursue either electrical work, or HVAC. It’s knowledge intensive work, and it won’t break your back.

    Just remember that construction/skilled trades is a different world than many people are used to today. You meet a lot of very interesting, strange, and sometimes offensive people. Also, 40 hrs. a week, every week, from now until retirement is not a realistic expectation. There will be 1000’s of hours of overtime some years, and others you may end up riding the unemployment train for a few months here or there. Construction especially is very boom and bust.

    I’m an IBEW Apprentice as well, and in my class at least, the apprentices without any form of college are in the minority. Try it out at least, and if you don’t like it (and many don’t) just remember that the training is paid, and you have nothing to lose.

  9. Matt says:

    Jim German Says: “Thanks to the wonders of capitalism, this isn’t really a problem at all. As the supply of labor goes down, the wages (and associated billing rates) will go up, and then more people will start joining the profession.”

    Every industry seems to to react differently to supply and demand. Those who run the industry heavily influence the “supply”. In the helicopter pilot world our companies lobby the government to lower standards to increase the supply. Nurses have had the “supply” flooded with immmigrants, just as the trades have had done to them. Every has witnessed the whole dissappearing of jobs outside the border.

    Nobody can really say if FREE TRADE works or not because it’s never actually been practiced.

  10. Zathrus says:

    [blockquote]In my area, a skilled licensed electrician earns ~35.00/hour. A first term apprentice starts at $14.26. How many other entry level jobs do you know start there? I know my first job out of college was no where close to that in today’s dollars.[/blockquote]

    Shrug, I graduated college well over a decade ago. I turned down several job offers in the low to mid 30k range and accepted one in the upper 30s (Computer Science). At the time Chemical Engineering majors were entertaining jobs in the upper 40s to low 50s. You can double the initial salary within 5 years in most cases.

    And that’s why people are pushing for 4 year degrees. Plus the much lower incidence of on the job injuries. If the kid has no aptitude for college, but is mechanically inclined then I definitely agree that a Vocational training is the way to go (and that’s the direction my brother went, and it’s done very well for him), but shooting down college degrees is really pretty silly.

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