In a January 2017 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America, 73 percent of skilled-trade businesses had a difficult time finding qualified workers and 55 percent identified worker shortages as a bigger concern than federal regulations (41 percent) and low infrastructure investment (18 percent). Experts mostly feel that the problem is only getting worse, and that if the reality doesn’t begin to change soon, the U.S. economy is in serious trouble.
This “crisis” still hasn’t made its way to American dinner-table conversations, but it likely will soon. Regardless, it’s pretty much the only thing people in the skilled trades are talking about—from the board room to the jobsite—and it mostly involves a simple equation.
Young people just aren’t interested in blue-collar jobs—at least not enough to fill the massive void that is forming as Baby Boomers age out of the skilled trades. Across almost every industry sector, what used to be a reliable generation-to-generation handoff has now become a growing chasm.
Reasons? To keep it brief: over the last 25 years, an emphasis on higher education and white collar and/or tech jobs was pushed hard through the nation’s high schools; skilled-trade classes like wood/metal shop and auto-mechanics were gradually removed; and then, well, technology happened, and young people began to see the world with new eyes—and the prospect of working with one’s hands or wielding a hammer or operating a crane or getting dirty in general just wasn’t as appealing as the host of work-life opportunities they were seeing, and continue to see, on their screens each day.
“So many people think success is going to an office and wearing a suit … and many people in the trades are making as much money as any other career sector at this point,” said Rick Smith, HVAC instructor and program head at Valley College (287 Aikens Center, Martinsburg, WV).
Founded in 1987, Valley College offers five online programs, and three programs that can be pursued on campus: Medical Clinical Assistant (MCA); Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC); and Certified Nursing Assistant. The institution stands as a symbol of the type of effort it will take from the ground up to build the next generation of the nation’s bedrock blue-collar workforce.
“There is such a shortage of tradespeople across the country, in all trades,” added Smith. “Our society steered people away from working with their hands. That’s resulted in statistics like the ones I read this week from the HVACR Workforce Development Foundation: they predict that, by 2022, there’s going to be a twenty-one percent increase in technicians needed in the HVAC field—and that’s coupled with a twenty-two percent change in the workforce reaching retirement age.”
Smith also indicated that there are over 200,000 HVAC openings in the U.S., while at the same time, schools like Valley only produce 21,300 graduates a year. And again, that’s just heating and air conditioning. This is widespread: construction, welding, iron work, plumbing, crane and rigging, trucking, and more.
“What a lot of people, and especially young people, don’t realize is that you can almost write your ticket at this point—in terms of a career in the trades,” said Smith. “When I talk with people in our program, many of them know it—either through research or having been told by someone who are themselves in the trades. Generations Y and Z just don’t seem to see the appeal; however, the opportunities are massive.”
Smith’s HVAC program is a perfect example. “There are so many related fields that people don’t think about in relation to HVAC, and we try to expose students to that,” he emphasized. “HVAC lands in so many industries besides just home and office: there’s HVAC equipment for on-road trucks, super markets, aircrafts, and the one that might wake some young people up—tech farms.”
Indeed, Smith makes a good point—a career in HVAC (as an example of the broad, and marketable, skill set that most skilled tradespeople acquire) could lead in many directions. “With HVAC, you learn so many skills—electrical, plumbing, carpentry, heating, ventilating—skills that transfer into other trades and/or opportunities,” he affirmed. “Students find that, once they have the basic skill set, there are so many different avenues open to them—to advance, to go out on their own, or to move vertically into other industries entirely. And long-term security.”
All programs at Valley College are certificate/diploma programs unless otherwise noted. Students complete short-term programs, and the staff assists them with job placement upon graduation.
New students are able to begin every three weeks. They take one class at a time, each lasting three weeks, and the courses build upon each other via a tiered system. Individual attention is provided, as class sizes typically don’t exceed 18 students. In addition, the college ensures that students are only taking courses that will benefit them as they move forward in their professions.
Mary Quilici, Career Services Advisor at Valley, highlighted that Valley College’s placement rate of HVAC graduate students is currently 80 percent, with a graduation rate of 76 percent.
“Our HVAC students are each unique, and truly bring something to the industry,” she said. “And many of them are skilled in other areas such as welding, truck driving (CDL), plumbing, or construction. As they graduate with their HVAC certifications, they will be a dynamic employee for any company.”
The beauty of the program, added Smith, who’s been teaching for 22 years after 20 years in construction, is that it’s broad-based—producing a work-ready technician. “These graduates can be put in the field immediately—we’ve had some graduates get put in trucks upon hiring.”
He noted that the program focuses on all the various types of heating systems that students will inevitably work with. “Most people think of HVAC as heat pumps and air conditioning, but we also cover gas furnaces, oil furnaces, geothermal systems—we even touch on solar. Additionally, we work on the soft skills—customer service—as well as construction-related math and courses in electrical and trouble-shooting.”
Cycles being what they are, this latest cycle the U.S. is going through could easily be considered a gut check—an awakening of sorts—where the jobs that form the backbone of the country and literally make it work—build it—are in demand, and simultaneously ripe for the taking.
“Almost everything we take for granted in modern life circles back to the skilled trades,” Smith remarked. “Whether people know about it, or care, this is a historic moment—maybe even a watershed moment. But we’re doing our part at Valley College. We recently had an employer come to us wanting a top candidate. They were going to pay this person a large signing bonus, send them to Texas for training, and only required them to sign a one-year contract.
“I said, you only want them to sign a one-year deal? He said, this person will make so much money when they get back from Texas, they’ll never want to leave.”