The problem: our perception. The solution: our perception.
In case you didn’t know, there’s a shortage of skilled labor right now. In other words, companies are saying, “Hey Millenials, we have job openings that we’re willing to pay money for!” and not enough people are taking them up on it.
Why is that?
I mean, aren’t college grads in need of jobs to pay back all those student loans? Well, in this article I’d like to take a stab at answering the question of why Millenials aren’t interested in the trades, by and large.
Who’s to blame? Maybe our culture’s skewed perception of the trades.
While I’m sure there are a number of factors that play into the labor shortage right now, there’s one I want to propose and address in this article:
Our culture has been taught and is passing on, a poor perception of the trades.
Let me give a few examples. Here’s bad perception #1…
“Vo-tech is for dumb kids.”
The trades have had a bad reputation for far too long. And for many of us, it started back in high school.
Think about it: when you’re a little boy (or girl) you get toy hammers or tools and pretend to build and create things. Nobody looks down on you or thinks less of you because you want to work with your hands. But then you get to high school, and suddenly the culture changes.
You’re expected to learn like everyone else: cramming (sometimes useless) facts into your mind, so you can regurgitate the answers back up to your teachers in a multiple choice test. You’re expected to do this over and over again, and those who do it exceptionally well are called “smart”. For a long time, the expectation was: do this well, so you can get good grades, go to a good school, get a good job, and earn a good income.
But what if you weren’t wired to learn this way?
What if you learned best by doing, and you were gifted with a different intelligence that allowed you to create and put things together more mechanically? Well, for you there was vocational (vo-tech) school.
And here’s the thing…
I can tell you from personal experience that when I was in high school (in the early 2000s) the stereotype was that attending the local vo-tech school was for the less intelligent kids who couldn’t hack “regular” school. That is, that they were less intelligent, or troublemakers, or just wanted to get out of testing.
But think about how destructive that mindset is.
For some reason, building and working with toy tools is OK when you’re little, but now it’s time to grow up, learn to study and memorize things, and learn the same way as everyone else. If you can’t, or don’t want to, you’re looked down on.
Now, I’m not saying that every single person in every single high school across the U.S. sees the vo-tech school, or the students attending it, this way – but it certainly has been a stereotype for years now.
And this mindset goes hand in hand with bad perception #2:
“You better study or you’ll end up like him…”
Have you ever heard that before?
Maybe you’ve said it yourself, or maybe you heard someone say it to you. A parent and teenager are walking by a janitor, or driving past a construction worker on the highway, and the parent says: “that’s why you need to study. So you don’t end up like him.”
What do they mean by that?
Many mean this: “that work is hard (= physical and not in air conditioning) and not as glorious or important as other work. You should study and go to college so you can get an important job… not a menial one like that.”
First of all…
– “that guy” could be making more money than you are.
– he might be really happy working outside and with his hands all day.
– he might be providing really well for his family, and have a great work-life balance.
– and he might be healthier than you, with your sedentary work that’s literally taking years off your life.
Second of all…
When the culture talks like that, it produces a bias against the trades in the minds of our youth. It carries all sorts of implied messages that some jobs are less important than others, or that anyone who holds that type of job is less intelligent, or less hard working, or less ambitious.
And of course, none of those things are necessarily true.
But negative messages like this aren’t the only thing that may be contributing to a poor perception of the trades in our culture. Positive and well-meaning messages can also have a negative impact.
“Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
This is a common saying that’s kind of thrown around loosely these days.
I understand why people love it though. The idea is – if you find something that you so enjoy and that you’re so passionate about, it won’t feel like “work”. Instead, it will feel fun and enjoyable every day. And so, you’ll never “work” ( = experience frustration, toil, disappointment, etc.) a day of your life.
The problem is, real work is always work. Even people who love what they do will tell you that there are days when they want to give up, wish they would’ve stayed in bed, are tired, and that it’s hard.
Now apply this to the trades. Doing electrical work all day, crawling up in hot attics, isn’t super attractive. Framing a house in 90-degree weather is work. Construction is tiring and challenging. But many contractors and small business owners will tell you: they love what they do. Is it hard work? Heck yeah. Is it frustrating at times? You bet. Do they ever “work a day in their lives”? Yep. Every day of their lives. But there’s fulfillment in it.
You’re providing real services to solve real pains that people have. You’re keeping their house (and family) warm. You’re making it so they have clean running water. You’re building a home where they’ll raise a family for the next 25 years. You’re building the roads they’ll take to work for the rest of their lives. You’re literally building the physical world people inhabit.
The trick is to find joy and fulfillment in meaningful, honest work like that. That’s what we should be teaching the youth in our culture.
But when we tell the next generation “find something you love so you’ll never work a day in your life!”, we’re hindering them. Because that advice is likely to be taken the wrong way. We mean well, but we’re not making clear that every job has its challenges, and that joy and fulfillment are found in helping others and doing meaningful work with all our strength, and putting our name behind what we do.
And that’s one clue as to how to fix this labor shortage problem. A faulty, broken perspective is (at least partly) to blame for where we are. So fostering a healthy perspective should be one of the steps we take to fix it.
In other words, the trades have been viewed in an unhealthy way for years now. And the only way to really fix the younger generation’s view of skilled labor is to put forward a healthier, more honest perspective.
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Changing our culture’s perspective of the trades.
Here are a few basic steps I’m humbly suggesting, that might begin to address our culture’s broken view of skilled labor:
1- Value work that provides real value and solves pains.
We’ve already sort of touched on this one, but it bears repeating. We need to start praising work that provides real value and solves real pains. This is in contrast to work that is self-serving, un-loving, or that sells things people don’t really need or want.
With our culture’s obsession with tech and startups, everybody wants to be the next Facebook, Instagram, or Uber. People are creating apps, services, and games that are virtually useless (pun intended). They don’t really solve a pain or problem of society, they’re just another service to be addicted to. Please understand, I’m not saying all these services are bad or unhelpful. We make good use of apps like Instagram for our own business.
But what I am suggesting is that we need to stop glorifying tech startups that acquire millions of users and aim to take over the world, but are irrelevant in a few years with only millions of spent VC money to show for it. Instead, we should start giving more praise to entrepreneurs that start small businesses that provide real services to real humans with a real need.
When we start putting a value on work that provides services that others need and derive benefit from, and start seeing someone like a general contractor in the same light as someone who creates a problem-solving app – we’ll start to fix this wrong perception of the trades.
2- Teach youth to find joy in working hard and creating something tangible.
Again, I’m not hating on the engineers who code all day long. They build awesome projects they can be proud of to. But in our unbalanced obsession with tech, I fear that we may have begun to sort of de-value an honest day’s work, where you can look at a jobsite and see what you created.This one is sort of happening on its own. And that’s not really a surprise since we’re all human and in the end… tactile beings. We like to touch, feel, create, see, taste. In fact,
But slowly, this is changing. And that’s not really a surprise since we’re all human, and in the end… tactile beings. We like to touch, feel, create, see, taste. In fact, Millenials are already flocking to craft brewing, high-end coffee roasting, craft furniture making, farming, and the like. They’re increasingly realizing that there’s something really nice to seeing what you created at the end of the day. So let’s start verbalizing that as a benefit of manual labor and working hard with your hands.
Movements like Young Blood Worker on Instagram are doing just that: encouraging a younger generation to be proud of the work they do.
3- Stop telling youth “you don’t want to end up as a janitor”.
This should go without saying, but we need to break the mindset that manual labor jobs are for a different class of people, who are less intelligent, less driven, or less skilled than others.
4- Show more success stories.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that if you enter the trades, you won’t make as much money as you could have otherwise.
In fact, it just might be the other way around. Millenials feel like they need to go thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars into debt, to come away with a degree and hopefully land a job paying them $50,000 – $60,000 a year. They’ll be paying off their debt for years to come, while the person who entered the trades, learned fast, and worked hard started making $40,000-$60,000 a year instantly and put away savings.
If you don’t believe me, check out this success story of a landscaper who – working by himself – paid off all his debt, and is now a millionaire in his 40’s. You don’t hear this type of success story enough!
5. Respect the entrepreneurship in the trades.
While tech founders are (rightly) getting a lot of praise for what they’re creating, it feels like our culture has stopped seeing starting trades businesses as “real entrepreneurship”. Which is crazy, because many Entrepreneurs starting residential construction companies, or specialty contracting companies, are providing well for their families, have a team of dedicated employees and are making good profit.
Some are even learning from star Entrepreneurs like Gary Vee, and applying business growth and marketing principals to their own trades companies. For a perfect example of this, follow guys like Nick Schiffer on Instagram and you’ll see what I mean. Nick is working to build his company’s brand, and to be known as one of the top contractors in the world who raised the bar- all while getting to do what he loves: building.
It starts with a mindset change.
Coming to the end of this article, I realize it might seem anti-climactic to some of you.
There are no “actionable steps” – no quick fix solutions to get more Millenials to enter the trades. But all the bribes, perks, salaries in the world won’t be effective in solving the skills gap until youth start to see trades work as valuable, honest, important, meaningful work. Talk to most any Millenial, and they’ll tell you they want to do meaningful work. They want time to travel, to have experiences, to spend life how they want it. The trades offer all these things, we just need to change the way we talk and think about them in our culture.
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