SOUTH MILFORD — For the last several decades, high school graduates turned away from careers in the trades.
That’s left the U.S. corporations, like the South Milford-based J.O. Mory, which relies on talented skilled tradesmen and women to make up their workforce, in a bind.
With the average of most skilled trades workers quickly approaching retirement age, who will build our homes and offices? Who will make sure the lights come on and off as needed? Who will install the equipment that cools or warms those spaces?
Turns out that today’s high school students might have just rediscovered the trades.
“I do think high school students are finally starting to gain an interest in a career in the trades,” said Broc Buczolich, the apprenticeship coordinator at Local 172, South Bend. His organization represents plumbers, pipefitters, welders and HVAC technicians in northern Indiana. “It’s been a battle for so many years getting into schools because all students were told was you’ve got to go to college, you’ve got to go to college. But it’s starting to turn around now.”
Tammy Preston, the human relations director at J.O. Mory, said entire generations of skilled workers are simply missing from the trades. Skilled, talented, trained professionals in their 30s and 40s are nearly impossible to find, she said. That means when the current generation of tradesmen, men and women in their 50s retire, all the responsibility to get the jobs done right will fall onto the shoulders of men and women just now entering the workforce, just learning their craft.
“Right now, we’re not in what I would call a crisis mode, and this year has actually been a little bit better. I feel like that’s due to the RV industry slowing down, so we’ve had a little more success in getting people, but we’re always – we have a standing order – we will always hire a good licensed person in electrical and plumbing. In my experience, you never see a licensed plumber looking for a job,” Preston said.
Studies show baby boomers still make up the largest percentage of men and women who work as plumbers and suggest the average age of a plumber in the U.S. right now is around 50 years old.
“With all the baby boomers retiring, we’re losing a lot of knowledge and skill set. It’s going to take some years to get the numbers to recover,” Buczolich said.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that’s true. Research shows that demand for plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters is expected to grow, projected to grow at least 14 percent from now until 2028, growing much faster than the average demand for all occupations. New construction and building maintenance and repair should drive demand for these workers, and overall job opportunities are expected to be good.
As the trades start to rebound, it falls on the newest crop of 20-somethings to fill that demand, said a Fort Wayne trades representative.
Kyle Gresham, a spokesman for Carpenter’s Union, Local 232, Fort Wayne, oversees a program with about 90 apprentices. Gresham said the average age of a first-year apprentice in the Fort Wayne apprenticeship program is 27 years old.
“But that number is slowly starting to fall,” he added.
Part of the attraction is starting out a career without a mountain of debt. A recent survey by a student loan association showed that on average, students graduating from four-year college programs will carry a debt of nearly $30,000. Workers who complete an apprentice program graduate debt-free. And nowadays, most apprenticeship programs allow graduates to earn an associate’s degree upon completion.
But more and more, Gresham said applicants who tried college and found it just wasn’t to their liking are filling the vacancies in his union’s apprenticeship program.
“Most of our apprentices went to college or worked in their fields for a year or two and want to make a change,” he said. “That when they start looking at a building trades apprenticeship program.”
Most apprentice programs last four or five years. Apprentices typically work a standard 40-hour workweek and attend class two or three nights a week.
“That’s the best part,” Gresham said. “Our apprentices start making money from the moment they start working for a contractor, and they have full health insurance, paid for by their contractor, pension and annuity paid for by their contractor, and when they graduate, when they complete the program, they have a two-year associates degree through Ivy Tech. We have a four-year apprenticeship we offer that is virtually free to our apprentices. Apprentices pay $100 a year in book fees, but as far as paying for the actual training, we’re a completely self-funded entity.”
It’s a model almost every apprenticeship program now follows.
“Our typical program is like most, it’s (an) earn and learn program. Students go through the application process and if they are accepted, ours is a five-year program,” Buczolich said. “They are dispatched to a contractor and they work a regular 40-hour week for a contractor during the day, and attend night school two nights a week. So they’re getting on-the-job training and classroom training going through the program.”
Because the union has entered into a partnership agreement with Ivy Tech, those who complete the South Bend apprentice program also receive associates of science degrees from Ivy Tech when they graduate.
“They’re learning a trade and a degree as well,” he added. “Whatever path they chose, this is a stepping block. They have that degree to build on.”
High schools are starting to once again offer students interested in the trades a chance to learn about those jobs too. In northeast Indiana, educational centers like Impact Institute teach students about careers in HVAC. Those students don’t get credit toward apprenticeship programs but are valuable to potential employers like J.O. Mory, because it helps H.R. determine which students are serious about entering the field.