The skilled trades and six-figure salaries
In just about any discussion on college access, someone will at some point mention the skilled trades. “Let’s not forget about the skilled trades,” they’ll say. “There’s such demand, and you can make six figures as a welder or electrician!”
Because of the prevalence of this idea – both that there are a lot of employment opportunities in the skilled trades that pay a really high wage, and that more high school graduates should fill these posts rather than pursue a four-year college degree – it’s worth exploring the data on the skilled trades.
The short version is that yes, there are some good jobs to be had in the skilled trades; no, you’re unlikely to earn six figures in these jobs; the road to the skilled trades isn’t exactly easy; and when all is said and done, our approach to college access should look the same for all students.
First, yes, there are jobs available in the skilled trades. A report from Michigan’s Department of Technology, Management, and Budget estimates jobs in industrial and construction trades make up close to 5% of all jobs in Michigan.
But, the number employed in many of these jobs is declining nationally. Since 2006, we employ 30% fewer carpenters, 26% fewer millwrights, and 24% fewer sheet metal workers, for example. Many still project increased openings in the skilled trades in coming years as older workers retire, but these occupations clearly aren’t the fastest growing sector of the economy either.
So yes, there are jobs available in the skilled trades, but not as many as people think.
And in these jobs, you’re not likely to earn six figure salaries. A couple of weeks ago, NPR’s 1A ran a program titled “How to Earn Six Figures Without a Four-Year Degree,” which focused largely on the skilled trades and apprenticeship pathways. The panelists referenced different occupations in the skilled trades (welders, machinists, carpenters, plumbers), and anecdotes about high salaries in the skilled trades, but largely left hard data out of the discussion.
And while there are some skilled trades occupations in which you can earn a good living (based on our analysis of Department of Labor data, electricians and plumbers earn a median over $50,000, and the top 10% of earners can indeed earn over $90,000), the median income for most jobs in the skilled trades hovers between $35,000 and $45,000 (reference the BLS occupational handbook for data on individual jobs). So while these jobs might put you over the national median of roughly $37,000, and would certainly help you earn more than most individuals with no education beyond high school, it’s unclear where this idea of welders earning six-figure incomes came from (BLS has the median welder at $39,390).
Pathways to skilled trades apprenticeship programs are also not necessarily easy to enter or complete. According to a 2016 DTMB report on registered apprenticeships in Michigan, 94% of entering apprentices between 2008 and 2015 were men, 70% were white, and 65% were members of a union – clearly not universally accessible. In addition, just roughly a third of individuals that start apprenticeships in Michigan actually complete them.
Finally, even if there were more skilled trades jobs available, and even if salaries were a bit higher, and even if the pathways to these jobs were plentiful and secure, it still shouldn’t change our approach to college advising for all students.
Students should be exposed to a range of potential careers and postsecondary pathways, and this can absolutely include careers in the skilled trades. But this means that they should also be exposed to data on the labor market outcomes for various postsecondary pathways. And presented with this data, it becomes pretty clear that our focus should be on providing every student the opportunity to attain a four-year college degree, should they want to. Those with a bachelor’s degree are more likely to be working than those without and on average earn more, and these trends seem to only be accelerating. The vast majority of jobs added to the economy since the recession have gone to BA holders, as have nearly all new jobs that pay over $50,000. And through the recession, employment largely held stable for BA holders, while construction and manufacturing saw huge job losses that have yet to recover.
The danger in discussions around the skilled trades or other pathways short of a bachelor’s degree is that they’re often reserved only for students who may not be thought of as “college material.” But based on the overwhelming evidence of the benefits that come with attaining a four-year degree – and the evidence that academically “marginal” students can and do thrive at four-year colleges – no one but the student themselves should deciding who is or isn’t college material.
So yes of course we can and should expose students to a full suite of postsecondary options. But we need to avoid anecdotes and arm them with the hard data to help all students decide what’s best for them.
This Post Has 5 Comments
One major point that I think you left out of the article when discussing the average wages earned by people in skilled trades is that even if someone makes an average of $40,000 at their skilled trades job, they are much less likely to have high student loan debt. Student loan debt can quickly erode the value of a salary. There is affordable options for skilled trades education and many times employers will pay for education in these areas and students are working and earning a paycheck while in school.
I work in a college environment and support students that want to pursue both traditional and occupational paths. I am very excited that we are starting to break the barriers that identify skilled trades training with a negative connotation. I agree that skilled trades is not for everyone, but think it will be great if we get to the day that a student with an interest in the area might be positively supported by his or her guidance counselor, parents etc… to pursue their dreams. We are not there yet, but have improved.
Looking at data is important, but it is also important to listen to employers.
Recently I sat in a meeting that brought together employers from the Great Lakes Bay Region, and it included companies like Dow, Nexteer and some other large companies in our area. There message was very loud that we don’t have enough trained fabricators, welders, etc… that have the level of education that is required for these positions today and that they are struggling to get these people and will pay well ($60,000 – $70,000 when they find them.)
Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. This isn’t a question of whether the skilled trades are a good-paying option or work that should be honored. Of course both are true. The question is when do you start occupational training. Our belief is post secondary. So that the choice of what career path to follow is the students, not adults who way too often push them to get on a path based on class and race, after every student has built foundation skills that put all options on the table for them to choose from.
In addition the facts about the skilled trades and four-year degrees that dominates the public conversation today are distorted to say the least. The number of skilled trades jobs and what they pay are exaggerated. What young people with four-year degrees make when they graduate is far more than conventional wisdom. And the burden of student loans vs.its value as an investment is misstated repeatedly. The reality is if you graduate from college it is the best investment you can make. Also there are lots of occupations that do not require a four-year degree that pay at least as well as the skilled trades and employed more that kids are never told about and there are no CTE programs for. A quality career counseling program based on facts, not anecdotes or which employer complains the loudest, would look a lot different than what passes for conventional wisdom today.
Hi Kristy, thanks for commenting. One more point to add on Lou’s thoughts. While student loan debt is surely a problem for some students, the data on student loan debt is also often exaggerated. While aggregate student loan debt can often seem like a massive figure, research from U of M’s Sue Dynarski has shown that it’s actually not those with the largest loan burdens that default on their debt, but instead those with the smallest loan burdens. The reason is that those with larger loan burdens actually completed their degrees, and therefore benefit from the value the degree carries in the labor market, allowing them to pay off their debt. Those who don’t complete will struggle, despite the smaller loan burden. So the focus shouldn’t be as much on loan burden as on ensuring students actually complete.
I find this article off base.
My husband is a high 6 figure Auto mechanic whose apprentice’s are making 25 bucks an hour in Michigan in 2019.
Trades DO pay very well! Actually my husband’s shop is constantly In need of good quality techs! My husband is the Formen and laughs at figures that say trades people make only 35k. Maybe if you suck!!
Join a trades Union and you will find plenty of guys making great money.
It’s great that your husband’s employer pays his auto mechanics well. We need more employers who do. But the data in the post come from employers reports to the federal government what they actually are paying people now in each occupation. So it is not what one employer pays workers in that occupation, but what a representative sample of all employers pay those in that occupation. The median is what work earnings are at the mid point (half of those in the occupation make more, half make less) for each occupation. It is calculated by multiplying the median hourly wage by 2,000 hours. It does not include overtime pay or bonuses.