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Discussing the Skills Gap with a Millennial Working in Skilled Trades

Posted by  Alli Besl, Ph.D.

skilled trades skills gap

Whether you're an employer or a job seeker, I'm sure you have heard or participated in a discussion surrounding the skills gap in the manufacturing, construction, and other skilled trade industries. Even organizations that offer good pay, benefits, and job security are having a difficult time filling their open roles. We know some of the reasons for the skills gap – a push for young people to pursue college degrees and discouragement from joining these manual labor fields to name a couple – but many individuals are now coming out of college with student loans and are struggling to find jobs that utilize their degrees because of the high rate of competition.

Trust me, I know how this goes. My husband was in a similar situation. He had earned a college degree in sports management and struggled to find jobs that leveraged his education. He bounced around from job to job trying to obtain the relevant experience until he finally decided to pursue a different path – the skilled trades path.

He has been working as a welder in the pipefitting/steamfitting trade for the past six years. He receives all of the perks previously mentioned, but also receives great pay for the work that he does which may be surprising to some (in fact, he makes more than I do, and I have PhD). Yes, he works very hard for what he earns, but he is extremely happy with his choice.

I decided to ask him a couple of questions about his experience and what makes a good steamfitter. I wanted to understand the characteristics that someone would need to be successful in the role. I also wanted to get his thoughts on why people of the millennial generation (and younger) may not be as interested in pursuing these types of jobs.

Q: What makes a good welder/steamfitter?

A: First of all, showing up every day and being on time is crucial. You learn a lot on the job so being there is important to ensure you get the knowledge you need. You are always doing something new or working on something new, so you must be willing and eager to learn. You do get some training in the classroom, but nothing compares to being on the job and actually doing the work. This goes hand in hand with having a strong work ethic and being motivated.  It is also important to have good hand-eye coordination, common sense, and competence. Having strong math and physics skills are a plus as well.

Q: If you had to describe the ideal individual for a job like yours, what would they be like?

A: Someone who shows up every day on time, who doesn't prolong breaks or lunch and wants to get back to work. Someone who is knowledgeable enough to provide guidance to others and versatile, who can do multiple things successfully (e.g., can effectively mig, tig, and stick weld).

Related: Recruiting in a War for Talent? Consider Competencies Over Experience

Q: Do you think people of different generations have different perceptions of steamfitting?

A: Yes – the younger generations don’t want to get into steamfitting because they would rather get a college education and work in an office job.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: To avoid the strain on their body from doing manual labor.

Q: So, do you think the younger generations are just lazy?

A: No, perhaps more entitled. Some think that if they get the college degree that they should be running a company when they get out.

Q: You’re a millennial and you went to college, what made you consider getting into the trades?

A: Honestly, because I couldn’t get an attractive job using my degree. Everyone wanted experience and I wasn’t able to find a job that would allow me to gain that experience. I wish I could say I always wanted to be a steamfitter, but I didn’t even really know what it was at the time. I was at a point in my life where I knew I was going to have to switch my focus to make a decent living. I was talking with a friend of mine in the trade who had been through a very similar set of circumstances and the way he described what he did as a pipefitter made me want to give it a try and I thought I would be good at it.

Q: In hindsight, do you wish you would have started in the trade right out of high school?

A: Yes and No. Yes, because I love what I do and I could have progressed quicker. But no, because I had the time of my life in college. I was fortunate enough to get through college on a baseball scholarship, but if that hadn’t been the case, I might have a different answer to that question. If it wasn’t for the scholarship, I most likely would have been a college drop out.

Q: What advice would you give a young person deciding between college or not?

A: If you can’t afford college or don’t have a scholarship, you will probably wind up doing manual labor at some point anyway. But if you have the means to go to college and set yourself up for success academically, then you need to give college a shot. College isn’t for everyone, so don’t push yourself in a direction that is not a good fit for you. There are plenty of great opportunities for people who don’t pursue the college route as long as they are willing to work for it.

So, where does this leave manufacturing and other skilled trade employers? There are good candidates out there. There are efforts you can take to close the skills gap. If you're facing challenges sourcing or attracting candidates, take a look at your hiring processes and company culture to ensure millennials (and all other applicants) stay interested. 

manufacturing employees

Tags:   manufacturing hiring in a tight labor market, millennials, manufacturing hiring

Alli Besl, Ph.D.

Allison Besl is a Research Consultant based in the Pittsburgh office of Select International. Her areas of expertise include: employee turnover, selection and recruitment.

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