Time and again, today’s youth have been told that going to college is extremely important to their futures. It’s been drilled into their heads that without a degree, they can only hope to attain low-level employment with low pay.
At some time in the recent past, society began to downplay the importance of working in the construction trades. Carpenters, concrete workers, brick masons, plumbers and electricians are viewed as less important than computer programmers or accountants. It’s gotten to the point where very few young people are interested in entering the construction industry for fear of being perceived as “lower class.”
How did this happen? Construction workers are vital to society. If not for them, the nation’s infrastructure and economy would both come crashing down. Literally. Where do people think their roads, homes and offices come from, a 3-D printer?
Young people seem unaware that someone built everything they touch. When their parents want a new patio, an updated kitchen or their HVAC units repaired, who do they call? Judging by their complaints about how much the work cost, obviously someone must be making good money in construction!
The prejudice against actually working for a living is prevalent. However, it’s completely unjustified. Currently, there’s a critical shortage of young people in the building trades. The construction workforce continues to get older and older. Each day workers retire, taking their knowledge and experience with them.
Without these workers, there’ll be an even larger labor problem. In just a few years, not only will there be no one to build our country, but soon there’ll be no one qualified to train the few incoming workers. It has truly gotten to a critical point. As a result, wages are skyrocketing as demand for qualified workers increases. A young person entering the construction industry today has a very bright future indeed— which doesn’t hold true for some other industries.
Always a need for construction workers
Twenty years ago, manufacturing jobs were highly sought after and considered high-paying. Now, robots that can do the job cheaper have replaced many assembly line workers. Likewise, just a few years ago if you knew anything at all about computers you were a rarity and practically guaranteed a lucrative job. Now, everyone under the age of 35 is computer savvy. Most preschoolers can work a computer better than their grandparents who are in the primes of their careers.
The competition for tech jobs is fierce, and many recent college graduates can’t find meaningful work. If they are lucky enough to gain employment in the computer industry, they must constantly keep abreast with new technology as there are younger successors in the wings.
The construction industry, on the other hand, has remained fairly consistent for decades. Although there have been great advances in technology, construction methods and principles haven’t changed much. Let’s face it: some things simply cannot be automated. Roads, bridges and skyscrapers can’t be built with the push of a button. Construction is an industry in which workers will never become obsolete.
You should have a plan
Today’s students have much to consider when deciding what to do after high school. Will they go on to college or immediately start working? For some, it’s not an easy choice. A lot depends upon their ultimate goals. If they want to be licensed professionals such as a doctors, engineers, architects or lawyers, then a college degree is imperative. From early on, some focused students seem certain of what they want to do and know that college is the only way to achieve their goals.
Other students, however, aren’t so lucky. They have no idea what career to pursue. For them, going to college to “figure it out” could be a financially disastrous move. Without a clearly defined goal, many students wander aimlessly through various courses which may not help them if they decide to change their focus. I am writing this article because I was that student without a plan.
I attended a private, small-town high school where most graduates were expected to go to college. Despite being somewhat lazy, I got above-average grades. Art was the one area where I excelled. I knew nothing about commercial art, or any other related field, but I could draw. So, having no better plan, I enrolled in college and decided to major in fine arts. I assumed I’d discover what I really wanted to do once I got there. Meanwhile, I looked forward to college where I could have fun with my friends and be more independent.
Like all my friends, I got a summer job, took out student loans and headed off to college in the fall. Four and a half years later, and with the specter of repaying my college loans hanging over me, I graduated with a somewhat meaningless degree.
After about three years of school, I became disillusioned with art as a career. But by then I was too far along to change majors without adding several more years to my stay. Even if I had switched to something else, I don’t know what it would have been. I was no closer to knowing what kind of career I wanted than I had been in high school. In the 30-odd years since, I haven’t worked a single day in an industry related to my major. Luckily for me, I stumbled upon a job that shaped my future.
Finding my niche
While at college, I met my future wife and we planned to get married shortly after graduation. At the time, I was earning just over minimum wage at a retail job. With marriage on the horizon, I knew I needed to make more money. By then I had no illusions of working as an artist, and I had little experience at anything other than running a cash register.
Without much luck, I searched the local classified ads for a better paying job. Most of the “no experience necessary, we will train” jobs involved selling some sort of gadget or a borderline shady insurance policy. The ads made the jobs sound like great opportunities with good pay, but every interview revealed they were little more than multilevel marketing schemes.
One day I saw an ad for a laborer’s job on a municipal concrete crew. Although I knew nothing about concrete, I wasn’t afraid of work and all my summer jobs had involved physical labor. The laborer’s position offered a dollar or two more per hour than I was making. Having bought into the stigma of being underemployed, I had no intention of doing this type of work for very long. But it did pay better than my current job, so I went for it.
After a month and a half on the municipal crew, my hard work, good attitude and eagerness to learn a skill landed me a better job as a finisher with a local residential concrete company. My pay doubled overnight. I was still very inexperienced, but I learned more and more each day.
The more I learned, the more I discovered I really enjoyed working with concrete. It was physically demanding, fast paced and mentally gratifying. I’ve never been a patient person, so the immediacy of concrete work greatly appealed to me. After all, a person had to work quickly or the concrete would set up before it was finished. The strenuous nature of the job soon had me in great physical condition. At the end of each day I could stand back and admire my handiwork: something I had created with my own hands that was durable enough to last a lifetime.
Another aspect of concrete work I found appealing was the very informal nature of the residential job site. On most jobs, I could show up looking however I wanted. I could wear stained or ripped clothing, don shorts and a T-shirt, or show up unshaven and with unkempt hair. When there was no one around who might be offended, coarse language was the norm. It was the ultimate in a casual work environment!
Perhaps the most enjoyable facet of working construction was the wide range of personalities I encountered. There were others on my crew who, like me, had pursued higher education. There were also many who had merely graduated high school and even some who had dropped out. My crew was racially diverse, and two of my co-workers were women. It didn’t matter who we were or what our backgrounds had been: When we worked together we were all equal.
It’s a comfortable life
After working for the residential contractor for another month, my girlfriend and I got married and moved to a larger city. Commuting wasn’t a viable option, so I looked through the phone book for local concrete contractors. My first call landed me a job at an even higher wage. It had been three months since I made my career move and my wages had more than tripled. I began to feel like an actual adult.
Occasionally I’d speak with my friends who had gotten “real” jobs after college. I soon realized not everyone was happy with their career choice. Several found it tedious to return to the same place every day and do the same repetitive work. In contrast, my job let me visit a new location each day, perform varied tasks and interact with people from all walks of life. It kept things interesting. I wasn’t making huge amounts of money, but I was comfortable. I could afford to make my loan payments, rent a nice apartment, buy a car, enjoy an occasional night out and generally live the life I wanted.
In the following years I moved from company to company, gaining new skills and accepting more responsibility. I kept getting progressively better opportunities and my salary increased accordingly. From my original laborer’s job, I moved up to finisher, then lead man and on to foreman. I eventually started my own company, which afforded me and my family a comfortable living.
Although I may never make as much money as some of my old college friends, I still consider myself successful. I’ve been married to the same woman for 30 years, raised three children, paid off a mortgage and am respected in my community. I’m proud of what I do and still enjoy it. To me, that’s the very definition of success.
Did I need to go to college? For me, the answer is no. For young people without a clear direction in life, I recommend looking into the construction industry. It might be just the right fit.