2021 was a banner year for commercial development in Montgomery County. Despite supply chain issues exacerbated by the pandemic, MontCo still added an incredible 2.26 million square feet of non-residential space, much of that commercial office space. This year promises to continue that growth with more than 1 million square feet in the pipeline in the industrial market. This is great news for our region, and for the many local tradespeople in the construction industry.
A few months ago, I reflected on my own path that led me to a career in the trades. It is one that may sound familiar - after attending prep school, I graduated from a liberal-arts university. I then continued down the path preferred by my parents and applied to law school. But this is when I pivoted and followed my passion. I bought a pick-up truck, some tools and was on my way to building a successful construction business.
At the time it may have seemed careless, but I knew it was right for me. I understand the pressure that many young people feel today - to go to college, to attend graduate school, to get that corporate job - because I felt that way myself. But I forged a different path that proved fulfilling, and I encourage others to do the same. The pressure to obtain a college degree has permeated our society for a very long time with many impacts, one of which being a labor shortage in the construction industry and mechanical trades.
But perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel.
In the wake of the pandemic, college enrollment dropped and participation in skilled trade programs boomed. This is a trend I hope to see continue, as educating young people in mechanical skills will benefit them as they progress through life, even if they don’t choose it as a career. While it’s not easy and certainly not for everyone, the rewards of pursuing this road are plentiful. Tradespeople at the top of their field command a highly respectable salary. But like anything, in order to do well, they must be willing to work hard and invest the time in learning.
Let’s consider some numbers.
A four-year college education at many colleges and universities can range from $120,000 to over $300,000. Individuals without financial support often graduate with insurmountable debt, and the interest rates on student loans don’t make it any easier. A debt of $150,000 at a 6.8% interest rate can result in a monthly payment of approximately $1,200, which translates to nearly $18,000 out of pocket.
Now that we’ve determined what college can cost even after graduation day, let’s consider that the median salary for a new graduate is between $50,000 and $55,000. And after 10 years in the workforce, the median salary for graduates from the top 25 schools in the nation is between $70,000 and $90,000 a year. Once you set aside $18,000 for student loans each year, there is little left for life’s other expenses - which seem to be growing by the day.
Alternatively, a skilled tradesperson can command an hourly rate of $24 to $34 an hour. A 50-hour week at $28 per hour equates to a $70,000 annual salary (without the burden of $18,000 student loan payments each year). Despite this clear financial benefit, many people still have a negative perception of the trades and don’t consider it for a career. Now more than ever this is short-sighted as a large number of skilled laborers are nearing retirement, creating a real and growing opportunity for newer tradespeople just beginning their careers.
Despite this compelling assessment, until recently, we’ve seen a decline in vocational training, which has correlated with a decline in funding. It will be interesting to revisit this statistic in the next few years. Will the boom in enrollment in skilled trade programs be specific to this moment in time, or will the trend continue? Locally, Chester County committed to a $20 million investment in the trade school.
I’m optimistic that the boom will continue.
The one thing I have learned through my life experiences is that you must explore your passions. Do what makes you happy, because the greatest joy is a career you love. The demand for skilled tradespeople is here. With a strong work ethic, drive and diligence, the sky's the limit.