Changing our perceptions of trade jobs is the first step to filling workforce gap

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By Katie Sullivan, director of marketing, Corley Plumbing Air Electric

Seven years ago, I started in inside sales at a plumbing and electric company wondering, “How can I possibly grow in this job?” I didn’t even want to interview. Thankfully, someone persistently kept this opportunity in front of me. My plan was to stay for a few months until I could find something “better.” Within days of being at Corley Plumbing Air Electric, I recognized I was someplace special that cared and invested in the professional development of every person.

My perception of the trades almost cost me a life-changing opportunity. Many believe that trade jobs are dirty and dangerous, that they require little skill or thinking, and that they offer virtually no career advancement. Pop culture depicts trade workers as bumbling, poor, uneducated, lazy, and rude. These stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth, as I learned early on.

The skilled trades offer financial and job security without crippling student loan debt. These roles require specialized training, problem-solving, creative thinking, effective communication, and exceptional customer service skills.

Skilled tradesmen are often people who have an entrepreneurial spirit without the ability to take on the risks. Their days are varied, physical, and filled with challenges. Workers have to remain motivated, as their work is often thankless and goes unnoticed. After all, who sees the wires and pipes hidden behind the walls?

I see thousands of positions go unfilled across the country because people aren’t attracted to working for a plumbing or HVAC company. However, these companies need accountants, marketers, logistics, HR representatives, and yes, tradesmen.

This lesser view of the trades has created a culture where vocational programs, including those at our Greenville County Schools’ career centers, see decreased matriculation. Technical colleges have to cut programs that would offer opportunities for veterans, young adults, and others looking for fulfilling careers to gain the certifications they need to secure skilled positions. With a decrease in a trained workforce, small businesses like ours are unable to find qualified workers.

This decline has brought forth a resurgence of apprenticeships. Five years ago, Corley started a registered program with Apprenticeship Carolina. We committed to offering paid, full-time, on-the-job training; 100 percent paid-for education; and benefits to individuals who wanted to pursue a career in the trades. Since inception, we’ve had seven graduates of our program, who at the time of graduation all accepted offers as full-time technicians.

So, how do we fix this cycle across the country? First, start by demonstrating respect for the work that these men and women do to keep us safe and comfortable. Tradesmen are the reason we can charge our phones, flush our toilets, and stay cool during those humid South Carolina summers. Our entire infrastructure is the result of skilled tradesmen. Yet we sporadically thank them and even less often show our respect. When you see a service truck, stop and say, “Thank you.” Admire and recognize the work they are doing in our community.

Second, encourage children to explore the trades. It might not be their career path, but allow it to be an option. Teach them to appreciate the training and education that goes into learning a skill.

The skilled trades deficit developed over decades. While I hope to see this gap shrink during my career, I know it will only happen if we start today to imagine the possibilities the skilled trades offer.

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