Like many states around the nation, New Hampshire is experiencing difficulty filling available jobs in what are broadly referred to as ‘the trades,’ a problem managers and business owners fear will only worsen.
“This isn’t a case where we are going to be in trouble–we are already in trouble,” said Al Lawrence, owner of Artisan Electrical Contractors in Madbury, NH. “The average age of an electrician is over 55 in New Hampshire and the average age of a plumber is older. We take these trades for granted.”
Josh Brunk, executive director of SkillsUSA New Hampshire, agrees and said this ‘skills gap’ requires ‘hands-on solutions.’
“SkillsUSA New Hampshire, while not the only organization committed to filling this skills gap, plays an important role in helping students walk out of high school prepared for work in the trades,” he said.
One of the ways in which SkillsUSA New Hampshire works, according to Lawrence, who serves as its treasurer, is through local, state and national competitions in which students demonstrate occupational and leadership skills. At the annual national-level SkillsUSA Championships, nearly 6,000 students compete in 99 occupational and leadership skill areas.
“SkillsUSA programs also help to establish industry standards for job skill training and promote community service,” he added.
At the state level, the month of March is busy for SkillsUSA New Hampshire state staff like Lawrence, who expressed enthusiasm at the upcoming Electrical Construction Wiring contest. Scheduled to take place on March 20 at Manchester Community College, the contest includes a written test of questions formulated from the latest edition of the National Electric Code (NEC) and a practical conduit bending exercise.
“There is also a hands-on component where students must install a conduit system, cabling system and wiring devices,” said Lawrence. “It is not an easy competition.”
Sponsored by Electrical Contractors Business Association, the competition is supported by many of its members and other industry leaders, each of whom donated their time and resources, while Independent Electrical Supply supplies all materials. Competitors receive prizes of tools and scholarships and the opportunity to travel to Louisville, Kentucky and represent the state of NH in the national competition.
For Lawrence, the state competition, however, is more than a fun experience, as he said it reflects the apprenticeship model of learning.
“In my model of learning, you come to work for me,” he said. “You don’t really have enough experience to know exactly what you want to do and you don’t have any significant skills yet, but I can teach those.”
He said the apprenticeship model of learning is “sort of like going to college” with one big difference.
“I’ll pay you to learn–not the other way around,” he said. “I am very comfortable with investing in the right type of person, because I believe that once they learn these skills that my investment will pay off.”
He said the current secondary educational system, however, defines higher education and what a professional career looks like In a very particular way. SkillsUSA and Career and Technical Education in general, he noted, are important because they reverse some of the stigmas that have been created regarding the trades.
“We have basically developed an unfair and inaccurate view of these professions,” he said. “We have created this horrible situation and just now are starting to figure out that we have a real problem.”
This problem, he said, has yet to be felt by many in society, although he said this will change in just the next few years.
“We need people with specific skill sets to do this work and the problem is we don’t have that,” he said. “They are all retiring and no one is taking over.”
While acknowledging there are some who may always laugh at the trades, Brunk said the kinds of careers possible today in them–and their pay–is no laughing matter.
“There are young people entering the workforce stepping into $25/hr. jobs and working their way up from there in careers that help build skills that transfer into other industries, too,” he said. “You can live a very comfortable life working in the trades.”
When the trades prosper, added Lawrence, the impact extends far beyond the individual lives of those who work within them.
“We are able to contribute to their local economy and raise families and give back,” he said. When we hire new people, it isn’t just the business that is getting direct benefit of that. Our employees have to go outside and buy lunch so they go to the local sub shop, they need gas, an auto mechanic, etcetera. “We are part of society’s infrastructure–we literally help build it.”
To learn more about SkillsUSA New Hampshire, visit skillsusanh.org.