Careers

How to Prepare for a Career in the Trades

iStock

If you prefer experiential learning, enjoy working with your hands, are curious about how things work and would like to start making a living sooner rather than later, you may want to explore careers in the skilled trades. Spending four years in a classroom and possibly incurring student debt is not the only way to secure a stable and meaningful career. As baby boomers retire and demand for skilled labor increases, opportunities will continue to grow. Although the earning potential for those in-demand jobs is high (since employers struggle to fill open positions), many high school graduates -- and their parents -- may be hesitant about such opportunities due to the persistent narrative that a college degree is the only way to success and thus, everyone needs one.

A 2017 report released by the Harvard Business School, Accenture and Grads of Life indicates that following the great recession of 2008, “employers defaulted to using college degrees as a proxy for a candidate’s range and depth of skills.” Jobs that previously didn’t require college degrees suddenly did. Qualified candidates without a degree were left behind, and even worse, positions in the skilled trades became regarded as somehow less valuable. Although the tide seems to be turning, the continued emphasis on four-year college degrees still leaves many employers without workers and many candidates without well-paying jobs.


Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs and founder of the Mike Rowe Foundation, seeks to challenge the previously prevalent notion that non-degree careers are not “good jobs” and wants you, the job seeker, to know that plenty of opportunities exist for well-compensated meaningful careers; you just need to change your mindset. A career in the trades usually involves manual, hands-on work that requires specific skills and allows you to earn a wage immediately. Popular fields include construction, manufacturing, transportation, maintenance, renewable energy and healthcare, but skilled workers are also found in fields such as broadcasting, the culinary arts, cosmetology, fashion and computer programming. A common thread is the acquisition of practical skills, and if that seems appealing, here’s how to prepare for a career in the trades.

Identify A Focus 

Dr. Katie Leonard, President and CEO of Johnson College of Technology, encourages job seekers to test the option for a career in the trades before deciding if it’s a fit. “If you’re not sure it’s right for you,” Leonard says, “start taking something through continuing education at a college or university and see if you like it.” Pursuing a career in the trades requires the same dedication as pursuing any other career, and spending some time exploring and experimenting before committing to a position is key. Do you enjoy learning about cars and how to fix them? Do you love building stuff or tinkering with computers?

With your preferences, values and abilities in mind, try apprenticing or shadowing to gain insights into what the role entails. Consider your physical condition as you explore opportunities, as some roles demand hard physical labor or work in hazardous environments. If you are not sure where to start, location may give you a clue: What’s a growing trade where you live? If you are open to moving, you may have more options to expand your search. Check out this list compiled by Trade Schools, Colleges and Universities on occupations that are some of the current highest paying among the trades and start exploring.

Know What’s Required

Although you don’t need a four-year college degree to secure a career in the trades, you may still need a minimum of a high school degree and some kind of formal education and training for entry into the trade. Vocational schools, apprenticeships, specialized certifications or on-the-job training are all possibilities. Acceptance requirements differ across institutions, and while some may have open enrollment, others consider numerous variables before admission. If you are between 16 and 24 years old and need to finish high school before being able to secure a career, you may want to consider checking out Job Corps, a career training program offered through the US Department of Labor.

Gain Necessary Skills 

The skilled trades are so called for a reason, and to gain access into one, you need to understand that skills matter. While the market is changing and many top employers no longer require a four-year degree, candidates are still required to demonstrate needed skills. To show that you are ready for careers in the skilled trades, focus on enhancing your technical skills (which could include mathematics, programming and coding) through some of the educational opportunities mentioned above. In addition to hard skills, you will need to develop vital soft skills. Learning the trade is important, but knowing how to work with people ensures that you grow and develop in your trade. As such, be sure to identify a program that allows you to gain both hard and soft skills knowledge and practice. “While we do place the emphasis on the technical skills,” Dr. Leonard says, “all of our programs of study come with general education requirements.” Specifically, she emphasizes the importance of communication and writing skills as they apply to the trade the student is studying.

Do Your Homework

Once you have a direction you want to pursue, research the requirements for entry and advancement. Some employers will train you on the job; others may require that you come with practical experience and an existing skill set. If the latter is the case, a certificate or an associate’s degree may come in handy. If an associate’s degree is a necessary step, research potential schools -- including community colleges, technical institutions and vocational schools -- and ask questions. Does the program offer hands-on experience? For example, Dr. Leonard highlights that at Johnson College, they strive for “70 percent hands-on, 30 percent theory” so students have the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned. Is the program accredited? What are the in-field placement rates? Who are the faculty and advisors? Do they have industry experience and relevant knowledge? How much will the program cost you and what are the opportunities for financial support? Speaking of financial support, you may want to check out the Work Ethic Scholarship Program offered through the Mike Rowe Foundation.

Be Flexible

In a dynamic world of work, you have the option to make a switch and go on to earn a four-year degree if that ends up being the step that makes the most sense for you. When I worked as a counselor at the Houston Community College (HCC), I met lots of students who were considering a transfer to a four-year institution, and HCC had established relationships with many of the major universities in the area. Today it’s easier than ever to design the career you want instead of following the same path for the rest of your life. In fact, you may not have the luxury to stay in the same field or position for the rest of your life, considering the impact of AI and technology on the world of work. To stay prepared, make sure you pay attention to trends and course-correct as needed.