On the surface, the popularity of rehab shows in the “Design on a Dime,” “Fixer Upper” and “House Crashers” oeuvre might suggest there’s a market for folks interested in the finer points of installing drywall, managing a miter box or crafting a flawless biscuit joint. And it would not be a leap in logic to presume such popularity would translate into people banging on doors with paint-stained fists to work in the trades.
That logic would be incorrect.
In fact, notwithstanding many, many hours devoted to the intricacies of accent walls, shaker panel wainscoting and light-emitting diode fixtures, not to mention framing, plumbing, electrical and HVAC, numerous positions in which one would get paid to deal with those very things are going unfilled. And that’s a problem.
As reported in Sunday’s Herald & Review, we’re in the middle of what amounts to a worker shortage in the skilled trades sector. There just aren’t qualified laborers, despite the possibility of good pay.
At this point, you may be thinking this seems a little peculiar, given the conventional wisdom about the scarcity of jobs in our area. The Decatur region had a 5.1 percent unemployment rate last month, among the highest of the 16 areas in Illinois tracked by the state Department of Employment Security.
Such conventional wisdom also is incorrect. The reality is, there are plenty opportunities for employment -- and not in low-paying, menial tasks.
So what gives?
To start, more baby boomers are entering retirement age, leaving a huge gap. And the recession a decade ago also forced my skilled laborers to switch careers as projects dried up.
At the same time, the push for college education over the past few decades -- well-intentioned as it is -- has funneled scores of smart, curious and hard-working young men and women away from the trades and into four-year degrees. It was thought a bachelor’s degree is the only path to a high-paying position, and vocational education programs aren’t a way to get there.
The reality is, four-year degree programs -– and the too-often shocking student loans that accompany them -- aren’t for everyone. We need carpenters, electricians, welders, mechanics and construction workers to keep our economy moving. These are important positions.
Thankfully, there are signs the issue is getting attention.
Mike Rowe, host of the popular show “Dirty Jobs,” has launched a foundation, mikeroweWORKS, focusing on the issue. And the original fix-it show “This Old House” on PBS has devoted this season to highlighting the topic.
We’re also encouraged President Donald Trump in June signed an executive order increasing federal funding for apprenticeship programs. Locally, the group “Men Macon a Difference,” was formed by local laborers focused on closing the skills gap.
All of these examples highlight an important piece in this puzzle – having educational programs and a clear message to attract young people into the trades is critical. Hands-on experience at an early age exposes young people to opportunities. They can solve problems and develop solutions.
We need more of those workers entering our pipeline. Our economy is counting on it.