MEDIA, Pa. — Young men in jackets and ties walk along tidy walkways that connect the redbrick buildings of the 220-acre campus of the Williamson College of the Trades.
They wake up around 6 each morning, turn out for inspection, attend a morning assembly, then spend full days doing coursework and in shop, alternating at chores in the kitchen and tending the buildings and grounds. No alcohol is allowed, phones can’t be in view and even straying onto the grass costs demerits. Lights out is strictly at 10:30.
The college was established in 1888 by a frugal wealthy dry goods merchant to train young men as blacksmiths, bricklayers, harness-makers, wheelwrights and other kinds of tradesmen “so they may be able to support themselves by the labor of their own hands.”
Now, its original endowment having grown to $128 million, it enrolls 265 mostly low-income men who spend three years, at no cost to them, earning associate degrees in subjects including carpentry, masonry, machine tooling and power plant technology.
“It’s old school,” said Michael Rounds, Williamson’s president. A throwback.
But education for the skilled trades appears to be returning to fashion, according to enrollment trends, survey data and other signals.
“If you look at where the jobs are, the sweet spot is an associate’s degree with a focus on the trades,” said Rounds, a former Army lieutenant colonel who previously taught engineering at West Point and whose desk faces a portrait of benefactor Isaiah Vansant Williamson.
One trend reviving interest in education in the trades appears to be growing doubt among high school students and career switchers about the value of a four-year college; the proportion of high schoolers who are considering a four-year education has plummeted from 71 percent to 48 percent since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a survey by the ECMC Group, a nonprofit student loan guaranty agency that also operates three career schools.
“Students and their families were questioning the cost of a four-year education, the declining completion numbers, the increasing debt,” said ECMC Group president and CEO Jeremy Wheaton. “That was something that was gaining momentum and traction even before the pandemic, and the pandemic has accelerated this movement.” (ECMC’s philanthropic arm, the ECMC Foundation, is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)
Meanwhile, Americans can see firsthand the labor shortages in fields such as construction, transportation and logistics, along with rising pay for those kinds of jobs and the lower debt and the shorter timetables needed to train for them.
“Especially with the younger generation, time matters. Money matters, but time matters as well,” said Chad Wilson, superintendent at the East Valley Institute of Technology in Arizona, or EVIT.
Trade careers have also gotten higher levels of respect as the labor shortages reveal their importance.
“These are deemed critical infrastructure,” said Mike Pressendo, chief marketing and strategy officer at the TechForce Foundation, which encourages students to become transportation technicians. And now, he said, “employers are sweetening the packages” for new recruits with higher pay, better benefits, tool allowances and signing bonuses.
At a job fair at Williamson in November, 114 employers showed up, outnumbering the graduating seniors.
“If you look at where the jobs are, the sweet spot is an associate’s degree with a focus on the trades.”Michael Rounds, president, Williamson College of the Trades
Outside Rounds’ office window, a $21.2 million student center is under construction, and a new dorm is going up nearby. The college is in the midst of raising $55 million to add to its endowment. All of these things are in anticipation of a planned increase in enrollment.
The number of people seeking education and training for the skilled trades is also up elsewhere.
In Utah, enrollment rose in the fall at seven of the state’s eight technical colleges, according to the Utah System of Higher Education. South Dakota’s Lake Area Technical College saw an 8.1 percent increase. The number of people training for the trades at Georgia Piedmont Technical College rose 13 percent this fall over last fall, the college says.
Postsecondary enrollment at EVIT is up 54 percent since 2018, it says; it’s adding a new aviation building and expanding other facilities. And the career colleges run by ECMC Group, in Georgia, Florida and Texas, reported a collective 20 percent increase in the number of students last year and 16 percent this year.
Those figures are particularly noteworthy against the backdrop of a nearly 8 percent decline in overall undergraduate college and university enrollment in the last two years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
“From the student perspective, incomes [in the trades] have increased to the point where you can support a family with a single income from these careers. And it really is a career and not just a job.”Gary Beeman, CEO and founder, New Valley Initiative Institute
Also in Pennsylvania, a for-profit trade school teaching diesel and automotive servicing, the New Village Initiative Institute, is opening in January on the site of a trade school that closed four years ago just outside the town of Indiana — where the public four-year Indiana University of Pennsylvania has seen a 27 percent decline in enrollment in the last five years.
“From the student perspective, incomes [in the trades] have increased to the point where you can support a family with a single income from these careers. And it really is a career and not just a job,” said Gary Beeman, New Village’s CEO and founder.
Williamson student David McCann took college courses while in high school and went to a community college for a while after that, paying out of pocket to avoid student loan debt. But “it would have taken such a long time to get a degree. It wasn’t worth it,” he decided.
College “may be useful if you want to be a doctor, if you want to be a lawyer, if you want to be a nurse. But I wanted to work with my hands,” said McCann, who already runs his own landscaping company with a friend on weekends and in the summers and plans to do that full time when he graduates.
Jose Santos went to a college-preparatory high school in North Philadelphia, and his college counselor and English teacher pushed him to enroll in what he calls “regular college” for a bachelor’s degree. Instead, he also went to Williamson, where he’s in his second year in the carpentry program with plans to start his own business flipping houses.
“My friends all applied to four-year colleges, and now they’re in debt and I’m not,” said Santos matter-of-factly, a pencil tucked into the rim of his baseball cap and a tape measure on his belt.
Classmate Shamar Kerr, who’s learning how to service boilers (“I didn’t know how much money you could make,” he said), interned during the summer at a nuclear power plant.
High schools like his, Kerr said, “try to push you to universities.” But he “didn’t like the idea of learning academic-type stuff that I didn’t think I was going to use.” His friends who did go to four-year colleges “aren’t happy. It’s a lot of stress. They’re paying a lot of money to take courses they don’t like to get jobs they might not even want.”
Parents encourage four-year college educations, too. Those who didn’t get degrees themselves “are the ones hardest to convince [to let their children go to trade school], because they tend to think the reason they’re in this position is because nobody went to college,” Rounds said.
In Aaron Tallman’s hometown in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County, “there was always a ‘you should do better than we did’ mentality.” But “why would I take the four years and go into a field I don’t know anything about, spend the money, spend the time, to go into something where there’s not even any demand?” asked Tallman, who is studying machine tooling at Williamson.
Raymere Stewart, who, like Tallman, is in his final year at Williamson, training to be a mason, said his parents back in Wilmington, Delaware, “pushed me about ‘What are you going to do when you graduate from high school?’ ” Stewart has already signed with a general contractor at a salary he said will be twice what either of his parents make.
There’s still broad antipathy among many prospective students toward working in the skilled trades.
“I just don’t think people see the trades as glamorous,” said Rich Torelli of South Philadelphia, who is in his final year in Williamson’s carpentry program and is being courted by a custom homebuilder in Montana. “When you think of a successful high-paid person, you don’t think about a carpenter.”
Half of Americans age 18 to 24 in a survey before Covid-19 by the metals supplier Metal Supermarkets said they would rather work as baristas than as welders. In another survey, by the large equipment rental company BigRentz, only 11 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they believed that training in the skilled trades led to high-paying jobs.
But those opinions have begun to shift. When BigRentz asked the same question after the pandemic started, the proportion of respondents who thought jobs in the trades paid well had risen to 16 percent; 33 percent said they thought trade school had become a better option than a more conventional college education, while 30 percent said it was more likely to lead to a job.
More than half of the high school students in that ECMC Group survey said they thought they could succeed with postsecondary educations of three years or less.
Many of them can. People with bachelor’s degrees still earn more and are less likely to be unemployed than people without them, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the number of jobs with median pay of $55,000 a year or more that don’t require a four-year university degree has been rising in about half of the 50 states, including in fields such as construction, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce says.
Another analysis by the Georgetown center found electrical and power transmission installers earning entry-level salaries of $80,400 — more than some graduates of Harvard with not just bachelor’s, but master’s degrees.
Employers are clamoring for people who can do these kinds of jobs, and often paying them more than in the past. That’s not only because of low unemployment. More skilled tradespeople are between the ages of 45 and 64, and nearing retirement, than workers in other occupations, according to the staffing company Adecco.
There’s a need for 258,000 new automotive technicians this year, for example, double the demand of last year, TechForce reports; fewer than a fifth that many are in the pipeline.
Because the course of study is shorter and the payoff so evident, completion rates in many trades programs are much higher than elsewhere in higher education, and so are placement rates.
Williamson has a graduation rate of about 75 percent, it says, more than double the 33 percent of students at conventional two-year colleges the federal government reports finish within three years. Its job-placement rate is 98 percent.
Prospective employers “email you over and over and over,” said Tallman, who is in his final year at Williamson and already has eight job offers. “We don’t have to go somewhere and beg for the job. They’re pleading for us.”
Georgia Piedmont has a 99 percent job placement rate; job fairs in the spring and fall spill out of the university’s conference center and into the hallways and vestibules, said executive vice president Cheree Williams.
College “may be useful if you want to be a doctor, if you want to be a lawyer, if you want to be a nurse. But I wanted to work with my hands.”David McCann, student, Williamson College of the Trades
States have also starting pushing the skilled trades.
Indiana started an initiative called Next Level Jobs even before Covid-19 hit, providing free training for high-demand occupations in advanced manufacturing, construction and transportation and logistics; 52,348 people have signed up for the program, which was expanded during the pandemic, a spokesman said, and 28,007 have completed it.
Tennessee is spending $50 million to beef up career and technical training, especially in rural counties, under what it calls the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education.
The governor of South Carolina has proposed spending $17 million of that state’s Covid-19 relief money to provide free tuition to technical colleges for training in high-demand occupations, including welding, driving trucks and running forklifts.
Some states are focusing on changing people’s perceptions of the trades. The Associated Industries of Arkansas is leading a campaign to nudge more people into them. Florida last year created an initiative to raise awareness of short-term career and technical training that leads to high-paying jobs.
“The biggest thing is attitudes and awareness,” said Pressendo, of TechForce. Half of what the foundation does to recruit future transportation technicians is offer scholarships, he said. “The other half is trying to get people to understand that these jobs are high tech, they’re high-paying, they’re secure.”
Wilson, at EVIT, returns the conversation to the revelations of the last two years.
“What people realized is that the backbone of who we are and what keeps our country going,” he said, “is often rooted in the jobs we prepare people for.”
This story about education for the skilled trades was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.