Is the skilled trade worker shortage affecting you?

As you look to hire, remember that electricians, plumbers, manufacturers and construction workers, among other skilled trade workers, are required to ensure a safe and healthy work environment and community infrastructure. But as a nation, we have not done a good job of promoting these trade careers to our younger generations. And as a result, we are experiencing shortages of people in almost every trade.

Americans 55 years or older, either close to or entering retirement, hold a sizable majority of trade jobs. This has put a strain on our economy, as recovery projects from natural disasters take longer and are more costly, and delayed infrastructure improvements create transportation and health challenges.

Perception shift

How did this happen? When did the trades fall out of favor as a career? Many researchers point to the period during the 1970s and 1980s when good jobs that required just a high school education started to disappear. Technology and globalization demanded increased skill levels for many occupations, causing volatility in the job market and leading to the creation of new kinds of jobs.

Experts said that employees had to be multiskilled in order to retrain for new jobs throughout their careers, and a good academic foundation was critical to retraining. As a result, parents directed their children into higher educational programs instead of vocational. This belief has continued with each new generation, helping to create the trade shortage we now face.

Alleviating the shortage

Given the pace of automation, the need for workers to be easily retrained remains a constant. However, we can’t rely only on post-high-school academic institutions to provide this foundation of critical thinking and learning. It should start the day a child enters elementary school.

What can we do the help alleviate this skilled trade worker shortage? Experts agree on the following strategies.

  • Acknowledge that trade careers and those traditionally born out of academia are equally valuable. This is probably the biggest challenge in the U.S. — changing the perception that skilled trade jobs are not as valuable or prestigious, because they are.
  • Encourage young people to pursue trade careers. The current maker movement has reintroduced a new generation to making and manufacturing, leading to an increased interest in trade. Let’s support and fund primary education programs that bring the maker movement into the classroom.
  • Consider apprenticeship programs. Take a critical eye to the types of jobs you have. Can someone out of high school or a trade program perform well by starting with an apprenticeship? Many resources — some with funding — are available to help establish apprenticeships. These programs provide many benefits, the most notable being a steadier supply of ready workers.

None of these suggestions are particularly challenging to undertake, but a concerted effort by all business leaders — and parents — is needed to help ensure that the U.S. has the workers needed to take us successfully into the future.


Suzy Teele is the head of Marketing & Communications at the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing, the nation’s leading collaborative in robotics and workforce innovation. Structured as a public-private partnership, ARM works with 200 member organizations to accelerate the advancement of transformative robotic technologies and education to increase U.S. global manufacturing competitiveness.