Skilled trades are becoming ‘lost arts’

Businesses, educators watch as young people choose other paths — which may not pay as well.


Business owners and educators are watching in dismay as young people pass on — or are steered away from — some of the most in-demand jobs in America.

Greg McAfee, owner of McAfee Heating & Air Conditioning, and leaders at the Miami Valley Career Technology Center (MVCTC), see the same problem: Young people shy away from the fundamental skilled trades — skills that have long supported a high standard of living for customers while providing good careers for many workers.

Good jobs such as electricians, plumbers, machinists and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) technicians and other trades are going unfilled, they say.

“We can’t keep up with the employers’ demands,” said Lonnie Huffgarden, an HVAC teacher at MVCTC.

According to the Manpower Group’s “talent shortage survey,” skilled trades workers top the list of the hardest jobs to fill in 2015.

That is a shame, say both McAfee and Robert Ewry, who is the school-to-apprenticeship coordinator for MVCTC. These can be decent jobs, they say, depending on a student’s abilities and location.

“Some of our students make more than their parents,” Ewry said. “It’s unbelievable.”

High-growth jobs

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the growth in jobs for HVAC technicians through 2024 will be 14 percent, much faster than average job growth nationally. The 2014 median pay for those workers was $21.46 per hour, or $44,630 a year, the bureau reports.

For plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, expected job growth until 2024 is 12 percent — also faster than average, according to the bureau. The 2014 median pay for those jobs was $24.36 an hour, or $50,660 a year.

For electricians, the numbers are even better: 14 percent expected job growth with a $51,110 2014 median annual salary.

McAfee and Ewry agree that students should be given options. Not every young person is suited for college — which may not end in a decent job and sometimes saddles students with heavy debt.

Current student loan debt exceeds $1.3 trillion, according to MarketWatch, which says student loan debt grows $2,726 every second.

And often, college students leave without a degree. More than 40 percent of students who start college don’t graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

But there are other paths. McAfee said he rarely hires new workers with experience. And yet he has one employee who has been with his Kettering-based company for just four years, and he’s already making nearly $60,000 a year.

”We pay well,” he said.

McAfee believes the problem goes back to high school and earlier. Too often, schools are cutting shop, industrial arts, woodworking and drafting classes, he said.

“I just think it’s the first thing that gets cut in a school budget — let’s cut industrial arts,” he said.

McAfee, who started his HVAC company more than 25 years ago in Beavercreek, also owns a sheet metal shop in Dayton. He has trouble finding workers there, too.

“It, too, is a lost art, a lost trade,” he said.

Needed jobs

While trade work in construction can be seasonal, other trades are more constant. In a city with hot summers and cold winters like Dayton, HVAC systems get a workout.

“These are all services that honestly none of us can live without,” said Chris Bryant, a 21-year McAfee employee who trains the company’s new hires.

“We can’t do without them,” Huffgarden said of skilled trades. “Nothing is going to replace them.”

Seth Wright, an MVCTC senior, started studying HVAC maintenance his junior year in high school. Already, the Preble County 18-year-old has earned more than $700 a week as an student-worker for Mechanical Systems of Dayton in jobs at construction sites at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and elsewhere.

“It’s awesome,” he said.

Wright saw a friend go through the MVCTC program, and his curiosity was piqued.

“He has a company van, and he’s making decent money,” he said. “He gets overtime when he wants it.”

Added Wright: “I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

MVCTC has 29 adult students, six high school seniors and 13 juniors in its HVAC program. But there is room for more, both adults and high-schoolers, teachers say.

Those who teach skilled trades readily admit that these jobs have an image problem. Parents in the last recession too often heard news of dormant construction sites and decided to direct their kids away from skilled trades.

“Now we have a big shortage,” Ewry said.

But parents shouldn’t be afraid of giving their children good options, Huffgarden said.

“The trades are noble kinds of jobs,” he said. “They are something to be proud of. When you go home and you’re tired, and you’re dirty a little bit, you take a shower and it washes off.”

Said Ewry, “We definitely need outreach to get students in here.”


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