Business careers offer a debt-free path and now with tech appeal
Over the past few decades, the culture has created a new norm in which young people are funneled directly from high school to college, rarely considering other options, despite what is best for the individual.
Profiling and stereotyping of people involved in the trades were barriers because commercial work was seen as dirty, according to Eric Peralez, director of training at the Central Texas Chapter of the Independent Electrical Contractors in a recent SXSW EDU presentation. Yet it’s irrational when data shows that 60% of freshmen end up dropping out, and on top of that, 30% who graduate end up not using their degree.
A 2021 Education Data Initiative study reports that the average debt for a four-year bachelor’s degree is $28,800. It’s a lot of debt to accumulate when the degree is not used and when there are paid opportunities that offer career growth and a good salary as early as high school.
Peralez currently runs an apprenticeship program for 600 students which offers a number of very attractive benefits, such as a starting salary well above minimum wage, a defined career path, benefits such as 401K and vacation, opportunities and skills development, no test requirements for SAT or ACT, and in most cases, no school debt.
At US News and World Reports list of the top 25 jobs that don’t require a college degree released earlier this year, four of the 25 are in the construction trade. So why does anyone hesitate?
Melaina Wilkin is Continuing Education Coordinator at Austin Community College and explains the factors that have converged to develop this anti-trade work culture.
First, with no child left behind as an influencer, trades classes were removed from schools.
Then, when the recession hit in 2008, renovation and construction activity dried up, resulting in the loss of 1.5 million skilled workers. After the recession, only 600,000 returned, leaving a shortage of 900,000 skilled workers. Moreover, those who survived did all they could to get by and did not take on apprentices or pass their skills on to the next generation.
On top of that, the construction industry is defined by a lot of family heritage, but children whose parents are in the field have seen all the problems and challenges, causing them to avoid the industry as a viable career path. .
Change the culture
Barry Bacom is the principal of Lockhart High School in the Austin area and is working to change the school curriculum structure to create more business opportunities for students. It looks at industries that pay high wages, are in high demand, and need high skills, and works backwards to expand the programs.
While Bacom acknowledges that this is partly about changing the mindset that college is the only way, he also stresses that it’s not just if you study, but what you study. It steers students towards pathways that will provide employment instead of chasing after a degree which may have very few employment opportunities.
Peralez points out that in the trade, there’s a lot of on-the-job training, creating a pattern of education to be earned while you learn, leading to skill progression, advanced technical knowledge and higher salaries.
At his school, Bacom is reviewing the roles and responsibilities of guidance counselors to educate students and parents about business opportunities. Currently, many schools require guidance counselors to have two very diverse skill sets: emotional and responsive service and academic guidance service, such as a CCMR or career and military readiness coordinator.
Bacom has separated these skill sets into two different roles so that the academic counselor can focus solely on supporting students from grade eight through post-secondary, and the guidance counselor can focus strictly on responsive services.
At the same time that there may be structural changes, Wilkin suggests that schools change the language they use to be more sensitive to the emphasis on the value of occupations and not the negative ideas that have accumulated around of them.
She also suggests building partnerships and advisory boards by working with local trades groups and community colleges. Finally, another easy win is separating student-focused events to give students room to explore. College day, career day, and job fairs should all be exclusive events, not a combination of all at once on the gym floor.
Adam Hoots is the Lean Construction Shepherd at Construction ACHE Solutions, sits on the Skilled Trades Alliance Board of Directors, and happens to know everyone in the workforce development space. He is one of the industry’s most passionate ambassadors and loves that everything around us starts with a skilled worker.
He frequently presents in schools and begins his presentations to students by explaining how everything relates to the building trade – infrastructure, roads, sanitary facilities, data, lighting, comfort. Then he talks about the rich opportunity.
“There’s no other place where you can have a brain and a bucket of tools and you can start your own business,” Hoots said. “In trades, there is a payoff while you learn the mentality. Experiential learning is often the best way to acquire knowledge and skills. It uses the learning pyramid – you get more and more involved to the point that you actually teach things, which can lead to up to 95% retention.
There are also multiple paths to get where you are going in trades.
“You can go to college and get a degree and you might end up in project management,” Hoots said. “You can also drop out of high school and get hands-on experience while getting a paid education and end up in the same place.”
He has sprung many industry connections and resources, including one of his favorites, Ray Terry, who hosts About Your House Radio with the Put Tools In Schools program. Hoots also works with the South Carolina Regional Center for Education Advisory Board to help high schools understand which curriculum is important for careers. Additionally, he uses the Build Your Future website as a clearinghouse for teaching materials and resources to present to local high schools and other students.
Peralez is trying to recruit more women into his program. The US Department of Labor wants him to shoot for 22% of enrollment to be women. However, currently only 5 out of 600 in the apprenticeship program are women, which translates to less than 1%.
One of his former students is now a master electrician, is very successful and shares his journey.
Liz Wilcocks was a high school dropout, but was able to come back for a GED and is now working on a college degree in physics. More than a decade ago, she moved to Texas after losing a job installing solar in California during the recession. She wanted to become an electrician after the solar works and was hired by Bowne Electric in Austin. The company put her through school while she worked. Now a master electrician and lighting controller for the company, Wilcocks was able to obtain all the licenses as they went – a residential license after two years and a license after six years.
“I’ve been in this business for almost 10 years,” she said. “I have been impressed with how quickly my salary has grown and it has more than doubled in the past 10 years. In the trades, this is one of the few areas where experience directly reflects in your I’ve had office jobs where there’s no real reason for your raises.Once you have your license, you know you’re valued at that level wherever you go.
Anna Cheniuntai is co-founder and CEO of Apis Cor, a leading 3D printing company. In this role, she is also a woman in an industry where 99% of CEOs are men.
Cheniuntai was born in Siberia with an entrepreneurial spirit. She studied space physics and during her studies got into building industrial machines, learned about CNC machines and won a $6 million contract to create traffic signs at the Olympics. . This process exposed her to the inefficiencies of the construction industry.
“So many times the construction was delayed, so we had to play with the schedule and the budget and everything,” she said. “Entrepreneurs relied on skilled labor which was limited. Sometimes they wouldn’t appear on the site for weeks. We started thinking that there is a space in the industry where robots can be introduced to improve efficiency. This is how we launched Apis Cor, with the unique feature of a construction robot.
While some might think robotics would take jobs away from industry, Cheniuntai sees how it opens doors.
“With robots, anyone can print a house using a joystick, a job that was very labor intensive,” she said. “The younger generation doesn’t want to get involved because they don’t want to do hard, dirty work. It is now much more interesting because of technology. Three years ago when we started 3D printing in construction a lot of people thought it was science fiction but then you see the technology was changing rapidly and today we see that the people understand that 3D printing houses are here to stay.
In a recent The Behind your Back podcast, host Bradley Hartmann speaks to Dan Lester, Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Field Culture at Clayco. Clayco also has the most comprehensive diversity and inclusion program in the construction industry, called Clayco Rising. The website offers resources for the trade, including training, presentations, policies, and book recommendations.
The company’s employees speak 46 different languages and represent approximately 40 countries.
“Greater inclusion gives us a better perspective to serve more people around us,” Lester said. “There are so many spaces that people bring and when you bring yourself to work, you bring the best versions of yourself to work.”