Reflection and Perspective: A Career in the Trades
By Brian McCausland
As a young man, my biggest interest was always in building and constructing. I would mix concrete for fun at age 6 in my father’s wheelbarrow, much to my father’s dismay. (I admit proper cleaning wasn’t always a priority.) I received a full set of power tools at age 10. By the time I was 12, I was reading books that detailed bridge construction and high-rise construction. The guy in the hard hat walking across the steel beam 30 stories up was my superhero.
As I grew up, I excelled academically, and my parents relentlessly tried to convince me that construction was not the career for me. I was to become a lawyer. I don’t blame my parents for encouraging this pathway—parents always want the best for their kids. But one thing I have learned through my life experiences and from being a parent myself is that you must explore your passions. Do what makes you happy, because the best joy, the greatest career, is one you love.
I attended prep school and then a fine liberal-arts university. I graduated with a solid GPA, took the LSAT, and applied to law school. After acceptance to law school, I realized I was driven to follow my passion, so I bought a pick-up truck and some tools and was on my way. That was 30 years ago.
Reflecting on my college education, engineering or construction management may have been a better study pathway and certainly would have helped in my pursuit of what I believe I was destined to do. But I have no regrets, and over the last 30 years, I’ve built a successful construction business.
The pressure to achieve the corporate job or to have a title to your career has not subsided. In fact, the pressure to obtain a college degree has permeated our society for a very long time. There’s nothing wrong with a fine education, but at what cost?
The desire to go to college and then graduate school is felt by many young people today. However, this has left us with a serious labor shortage in the construction industry and mechanical trades, not to mention many highly educated young people looking for work.
The attitude towards work in the trades has deterred many from even investigating the possibility, which has caused a ripple effect. Funding for vocational training has declined in correlation with lost interest in the field. The perception that people attend trade school only because they can’t handle mainstream academia has been fostered and reinforced for too long. As the need for tradespeople has been identified, funding has been replenished to an extent. Chester County recently invested $20 million in the trade school. This is all well and good if students attend; however, enrollment hasn’t increased.
Educating young people in the 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 costs between $120,000 and $300,000. If one isn’t fortunate to have help with this cost or assistance in navigating the world of financial aid and grants, an individual may graduate with an insurmountable debt. The interest rates on student loans aren’t favorable. If someone is unable to repay their loans because they cannot find employment that allows them to both live and pay their debt, default occurs—which drives rates higher. A debt of $150,000 at 6.8% (which is a favorable rate, comparatively) can result in a monthly payment of approximately $1,200, depending on loan terms. This debt translates into nearly $18,000 in earned income.
The median salary for a college graduate is between $50,000 and $55,000 nationwide. If that individual needs to earn $18,000 a year to service their student loans, there is little left for life’s other expenses. The median salary of a college graduate 10 years out is between $70,000 and $90,000 a year. This statistic is from the top 25 universities in the nation, including Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Penn. While these numbers are just averages across all disciplines and geographic areas, it certainly provides perspective on the situation.
A skilled tradesperson in any trade 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. As the population of skilled laborers ages, the shortage of labor in the mechanical trades will become increasingly evident. The upside is there’s a real and growing opportunity for individuals who choose this path. The demand is there, and with a strong work ethic, drive and diligence, the sky is the limit.