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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Skilled Trades Are in Demand: So, Why Aren't More Young People Getting Into Them?

The $50 million Lowe's Foundation Gable Grants program, launched in March, aims to channel 50,000 people into skilled building trades over the next five years with two-year grants for workforce training programs.
By Mary Mazzoni
student learns 3D modeling and design - skilled trades

A student trains in 3D modeling and design, one of many skilled building trades in high demand in the U.S. (Image courtesy of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College)

The demand for skilled trades like carpentry, plumbing and electrical is booming across the United States. The construction sector alone will need to draw nearly 550,000 new entrants into the field to meet the demand for labor this year, according to Associated Builders and Contractors, an industry trade group. 

Not only do these jobs pay well, but people also say they enjoy doing them: Construction jobs rank second highest in levels of self-reported happiness and second lowest in levels of self-reported stress, according to 2022 polling from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, employers are struggling to fill vacant roles, and it's set to get harder in the coming years as baby boomers and Gen Xers near retirement. 

"If you look at the average age of somebody in the skilled trades, a majority of these people will be retiring within the next 10 years," said Jordan Sanderson, an associate vice president at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, which serves more than 8,500 students a year across nine locations in the southern part of the state. 

The Lowe's Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the home improvement retailer Lowe's, is looking to change that by attracting and training up more young people. The $50 million Lowe's Foundation Gable Grants program, launched in March, will provide two-year grants for workforce training programs with the goal of channeling 50,000 people into skilled building trades over the next five years.

The Foundation announced its first round of grants, totaling $8 million, last week — with recipients including community and technical colleges like Mississippi Gulf Coast, as well as MiraCosta College in California, Madisonville Community College in Kentucky, and Columbus Technical College in Georgia. 

“These colleges are deeply embedded in the communities they serve and are so well-positioned to meet the changing needs of the skilled trades industry,” said Betsy Conway, director of the Lowe’s Foundation. “As our first wave of many Gable Grants recipients, we’re extremely confident in their innovative training programs and ability to continue building the sustainable and inclusive workforce that our country needs.”

So, what's causing the labor shortage in skilled trades anyway?

"Back 30 some odd years ago, when I was in high school, the pressure was on for everybody to get out and go get you a college education, get you an office job," said Obey Parker, a skilled craftsman and building trades instructor at Mississippi Gulf Coast. "The computer revolution was taking off, and everybody was doing that. And vocational programs suffered as a result. They started getting put out to pasture." 

As the cultural zeitgeist shifted, young people put less stock behind working with their hands and looked toward four-year college degrees for the promise of higher pay. The result? Student debt exploded more than sevenfold since the 1990s, but research shows college graduates still find it challenging to secure jobs in their chosen field. 

The booming demand in skilled trades — where salaries often exceed median U.S. worker pay by 30 percent or more — offers a promising new avenue for young people in search of steady work. But getting them interested requires a shift in mindset. 

"We as a society haven't done a good job over the last 10 or 20 years of promoting skilled trades," said Sanderson of Mississippi Gulf Coast. "You have these two factors of a somewhat negative perception of the skilled trades, coupled with ever-rising demand, and it creates a pretty profound worker shortage." 

students learn HVAC - skilled trades
A heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) class at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. (Image courtesy of Mississippi Gulf Coast)

With an eye toward local job markets, community and technical colleges look to get more people involved 

Interest in this space is slowly rising: 19 percent of high-school students said they are considering career and technical education in the skilled trades this year, compared to 15 percent in 2020, according to surveys from the nonprofit ECMC Group

Mississippi Gulf Coast plans to use its Gable Grant to fund internships and apprenticeships within its skilled trades programs, so students can earn a living wage while being trained in the field, as well as scholarships for lower-income students.

Where four-year college graduates are often slow to land their first job, the majority of Mississippi Gulf Coast's skilled trades programs — which range from building trades and construction engineering to 3D modeling and design — have job placement rates above 90 percent, Sanderson said. Graduates have a near 100 percent pass rate on the exams required for industry credentials. 

Given the high success rate of these programs, the college is looking to extend them to another population: those looking to rebuild their lives after leaving prison. Powered by Gable Grant funding, this year Mississippi Gulf Coast will launch a new skilled trades program at George County Regional Correctional Facility, located about 40 miles west of its main campus in a rural stretch near the Mississippi-Alabama border. 

Parker will head up training at George County across skilled trades like carpentry, electrical, masonry and plumbing. "It costs in the neighborhood of a million dollars to start a new career tech program because you have to buy so much equipment," Sanderson said. "While we've wanted to do something at George County for a while, we didn't have the money to do it. The Gable Grant will help us to stand up the program." 

Though mass incarceration has created a situation where around 1 in 3 U.S. adults now has a criminal record that would appear on a routine background screening, people often have trouble securing a job after they're released from jail or prison. Embracing this population can help fields like construction address labor shortages, and employers in Mississippi seem ready to do just that. 

"Market research went into it to see what exactly people can get jobs in when they're released," Sanderson said. "We don't want to teach somebody how to do something and they have to move away to get a job, or they can't get the job because they have a record." 

Mississippi allows inmates to transfer facilities in order to participate in workforce training programs. Those interested in entering the skilled trades can request a transfer to George County, while another nearby correctional facility offers a similar program for aspiring commercial truck drivers. Though the grant period is two years, the equipment installed at George County will allow Mississippi Gulf Coast to continue the program for many years to come. 

Meanwhile, MiraCosta College, which serves more than 10,000 students at two campuses in San Diego County, California, will leverage its Gable Grant funding to start two new skilled trades programs in the in-demand fields of heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC), as well as electrical.

"Both programs would be low cost to increase the participation of low-income individuals," said Linda Kurokawa, director of community education and workforce development at MiraCosta College. "During the two years of the grant, we expect to be able to provide training for a minimum of 168 students. Our close relationships with industry partners allow us to plan internship possibilities for students once they graduate from our programs." 

student trains in Construction Engineering - skilled trades
A student trains in construction engineering at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. (Image courtesy of Mississippi Gulf Coast)

It doesn't stop there 

Funding for community and technical colleges is a promising way to build a strong and steady pipeline of people entering skilled trades, but it's not enough on its own.

"It needs to start in the grade schools. It needs to start early," said Parker, who often encounters students who lack the foundational math skills to start their training in building trades. He identifies stronger students to act as tutors in order to navigate this challenge, but a greater emphasis on foundational skills in early education will allow teachers to do more once students enter college. Mississippi recently invested in high-school career coaches with this aim in mind. 

Beyond the requisite skills, though, educators, business leaders and everyday people need to do more to shift the perception around skilled trades and position them as viable, respected careers among the next generation. 

"It is important to also make sure people understand that careers in skilled trades are stable and well-paying opportunities," said Kurokawa of MiraCosta College. "Marketing all of these aspects is crucial in attracting more individuals to these great career pathways. It also helps to accelerate the training so that individuals can learn quickly and find themselves with paid on-the-job training as soon as possible."

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni