Seeking a match between millennials and skilled trades

As boomers retire, younger people not stepping in, experts say

Kevin Perkey sometimes wonders what the “pipeline” is going to look like.

It’s the pipeline bringing new, younger and fully-trained workers up through the system to become welders, plumbers, electricians and other professionals in the trades.

Baby boomers are retiring from these jobs in large numbers, creating a lot of openings in the trades for millennials, or those born between 1980 and 2000.

But Perkey, who’s CEO of SCPa Works, the workforce investment board for an eight-county region of Central Pennsylvania, isn’t sure where they’re going to come from.

The trades, for various reasons, are not attracting millennials these days, Perkey and others in his field agree.

Why? It may be a combination of the trades getting lost in the shuffle as 18-year-olds head off to college instead of thinking of a profession, along with a lot of high schools de-emphasizing things like shop and mechanics classes, Dale Hamby said.

Hamby, outgoing executive director of the Lancaster County Workforce Development Board, said there are a lot of young people who would benefit from going into a two-year program, learning a trade and then perhaps finishing college at some later point.

“Not everybody’s ready to step right into college,” Hamby said.

When he was in school, the 60-year-old Hamby said, many students “would learn how to use tools, learn the basic trades and get an interest in them, and then want to pursue that.

“Over time, the students aren’t being exposed to those things as much, both in the schools and in the homes, so they don’t know as much about it as they did,” Hamby said.

“The default setting becomes, ‘Let’s go to college,’ and they don’t think as much about other alternatives. It’s not a case of the (decision) being inherent to the individual, it’s kind of how we’ve trained them.”

The trades can provide an excellent income, advocates note.

According to one report, the average electrician makes $5,000 a year more than the average college graduate. There are 600,000 jobs for electricians in the country today, and about half of those will open up over the next decade, according to a 2015 NPR report on the millennial/trades issue.

But not enough young people are getting the training needed to become carpenters, welders and professionals in other trades, experts agree.

Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology student Dominic Bridi, 20, is the exception to that, however.

Coming out of high school in the Pottstown area, Bridi felt somewhat pressured by his school into going to a four-year college, Penn State.

He went there, but wound up leaving after a year, and transferred to Stevens, in Lancaster.

Now, “I could not be any happier,” said Bridi, who is following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and others in his family in seeking a trade job. “Every day I wake up, I can’t wait to go to class.”

He is majoring in industrial maintenance: “It’s always something new every day. It’s a new challenge every day.”

Too many high schools just push students into attending a four-your school, added Bridi, who is eagerly awaiting events like the Feb. 18 career fair at Stevens in hopes of landing a full-time job. “I believe schools should lay all of the options on the table for students” for both two-year and four-year schools, he said.

Perkey agreed with Hamby that more current high-schoolers need to explore possible careers in a trade, potentially gaining valuable work experience if they decide to pursue a four-year degree later.

“It will probably make you a stronger candidate to get into college, and then you’ll probably be more successful at it,” Perkey said. “You’ll also gain that valuable work experience, which is something that all of our employers, across all industries, regardless of degree or regardless of skill set, say they want.”

Workforce investment boards work to direct federal, state and local funding to workforce development programs, and create the resources to assist their local workforce.

Perkey’s board is based in Harrisburg and covers Dauphin, Cumberland, York, Lebanon, Juniata, Perry, Adams and Franklin counties. With eight counties, it has the largest civilian labor force of Pennsylvania’s 22 workforce investment areas.

The region’s current labor force is around 740,000 in the eight counties, with a regional unemployment rate of 4 percent, Perkey said.

“Across the industries, we’re seeing retirements,” a trend that began back during the 2008-09 recession and has continued, he noted. So now is the time to attract the millennials, “developing them up, taking some who were entry-level and moving them into the middle-manager and then further-up positions.

“Exposing youth to the trades, manufacturing and other career paths that may not initially require a four-year degree would help to build a stronger pipeline across a variety of industries,” Perkey said.

“But there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this.”

Hamby said, “What everybody needs is training and knowledge past the high-school level. That might be a four-year school, that might be a two-year school, (or) that might be technical training,” he said.

David O'Connor
Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at doconnor@cpbj.com.

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