WORKING STRATEGIES: Finding Your Fit in the World of Trades
If you follow the headlines, you’ve seen these employment topics popping up the past few years: record student loan debt; low retirement savings; low worker pay; gender pay gaps. While these problems could take decades to resolve, there is at least one solution already at hand: Careers in the trades.
Surprised? I’ll admit it’s a pretty tall claim to say that working in the trades would ease all of these issues but it’s not too far-fetched.
For example, if more people trained in trade school or apprenticeships instead of pursuing four-year degrees, they’d take out less debt and begin earning incomes more quickly. Likewise, since work in the trades tends to pay as well or better than many other jobs requiring similar levels of education, the opportunity to earn more over a lifetime is baked in. Given that many trades employers are union shops – and those that aren’t still need to compete for workers – retirement and health care also tend to trend upward as paid benefits.
As for gender pay gaps – these statistics are difficult to produce and compare but there is a sense that the numbers are improved in the trades. For example, the National Association of Women in Construction reports that the gender pay gap in construction fields is 95.7%, compared to the 81.1% gap in all jobs. That is, women make nearly the same pay as men for similar work in construction, while those in non-construction work earn only 81 cents on the dollar against men’s pay in comparable jobs (nawic.org/nawic/statistics.asp).
There are several reasons why trade careers are such a good bet, especially now. One of them is simple demographics: Large numbers of people working in these fields are on the cusp of retiring, and we have nowhere near as many people standing ready to replace them. In some areas, such as truck driving, the issue has already hit near-crisis levels, with our very infrastructure at risk: If we can’t deliver parts, products and raw materials in a timely way, we can’t function as an economy.
If this information surprises you, it may be time to take a closer look at the trades as a career path. Whatever your age or ability, and even if you’re already engaged in a non-trades field of work, there’s a good chance you could find a niche in this sector of our economy.
One reason I can give such a broad assurance is the breadth of the work itself. Although we have a cultural concept of “the trades” as jobs in construction and transportation, a number of sources take a much wider view. Indeed, online definitions are so sweeping, they’re almost global in their coverage: “Specializing in a particular occupation that requires work experience, on-the-job training, and often formal vocational education, but often not a bachelor’s degree,” says Wikipedia.
Well, couldn’t that be anything from nursing to pile driving to hair styling to plumbing? Yes, exactly. This web page gives a scope on how large the category can be: www.collegeoftrades.ca/trades-in-ontario. Here you’ll find four subsets of trades (Services, Industrial, Construction and “Motive Power” – essentially, automotive), each with their own lengthy list of job areas.
While this data hails from a Canadian regulatory body and uses terms that differ slightly from U.S. English (not to mention their French translations), I found the compendium of 150+ positions to be a good reflection of this category of work. And even so, I could think of at least two dozen more jobs that weren’t included.
As if that weren’t enough variety to cause decision paralysis, there’s another aspect to consider. When you work in the trades, you could be a one-person shop, or you could be employed in government, education, health care, or in a large or small company in private industry. On top of that, you could be union or non-union.
As it’s clear that work in the trades covers a lot of territory, would-be trades workers have a challenge ahead. How do you make a selection with so much to choose from? Like any career decision, the best place to start is with yourself. When you take an inventory of your own likes, dislikes, skills and interests, you’ll be able to narrow the options significantly.
Reading all that you can online, talking with people who hold jobs that interest you, and meeting with a career counselor for more guidance are also important steps.
And come back to this column to learn more. This is the subject for my Second Sunday Series this year, which means that every month for the next 12, I’ll be devoting the second Sunday to a topic related to work in the trades. I’ll see you back here in October and we’ll continue the exploration.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul.