Why trade jobs are unpopular, and how low-wage workers can get better opportunities

As the American economy recovers from the worst impacts of the pandemic, questions remain about the labor force and the problems that plagued the economy even prior to the start of COVID-19. In the eighth and final installment of our "Work Shift" series, Paul Solman recaps what we've learned.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the American economy recovers from the worst impacts of the pandemic, questions remain about the labor force and the larger problems that plagued the economy prior to the start of COVID-19.

    In the final installment of Paul Solman's Work Shift series, he looks at what we have learned and what's at stake for workers and employers.

  • Paul Solman:

    All around us, jobs going wanting. But it couldn't just have been pandemic unemployment benefits and low wages keeping workers in dry dock, because a host of high-paying jobs have gone unfilled for a very long time.

    Vinnie Sposari, Owner, Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Seattle: I have got plumbers that work for me today that make $200,000-plus a year.

  • Paul Solman:

    And yet Seattle plumbing contractor Vinnie Sposari has been unable to find workers for years.

  • Vinnie Sposari:

    I could hire six, eight experienced plumbers right now.

  • Paul Solman:

    So why the labor shortage?

  • Sarah Schnabel, Electrical Apprentice, LaMorte Electric:

    You're doing manual labor. Some people tend to look down on that.

  • Paul Solman:

    Sarah Schnabel, a Cornell grad, became an electrician.

  • Sarah Schnabel:

    For people my age, it's definitely more glamorous to think of the tech job, where you're in a really nice cushy office building.

  • Paul Solman:

    High schoolers in Southwest Louisiana had an added explanation.

  • Jordan Hoffman, Student:

    That's not an option that's often presented to us. Like, this is not for you.

  • Jacob Brewster, Student:

    It's like, go to college, go to college. There's barely anybody saying, go to trade school.

  • Paul Solman:

    Right, said Mike Rowe, famous for his cable TV series "Dirty Jobs."

    Mike Rowe, "Dirty Jobs": The push for one form of education, in my view, really was the beginning of a long list of stigmas and stereotypes and myths and misperceptions that to this day dissuade millions of kids from pursuing a legitimate opportunity to make six figures in the trades.

  • Paul Solman:

    A final reason the trades are underpopulated, up until recently, some two-thirds of Americans were excluded, women, people of color, or both.

    Adrienne Bennett, President and CEO, Benkari: Dead rats in my lunch box, like the women before me. They wanted me to leave.

  • Paul Solman:

    Plumber Adrienne Bennett, who now runs her own firm.

  • Adrienne Bennett:

    I was in a porta john one time. They picked me up with a crane. And you're bouncing around in there, you got this sewage. It's splashing all over you. You're afraid.

  • Paul Solman:

    Electrician Tonya Hicks also has her own company.

    Tonya Hicks, President and CEO, Power Solutions International: I had a foreman to tell me that all Black women do is get fat, have a bunch of kids and collect welfare.

  • Paul Solman:

    But it's not just the trades that can't fill jobs today. Tons of low-wage workers seem to be fed up with their pay and work and just aren't taking it anymore. And maybe they shouldn't, says economist Byron Auguste.

    Byron Auguste, President and Co-Founder, Opportunity@Work: During the pandemic, we saw tens of millions of essential workers do amazing things, things that required skills, that required adaptability, that required problem-solving, that required teamwork, that required communication under very difficult conditions.

  • Paul Solman:

    And given data collected by his firm, Opportunity@Work, they could be earning a lot more.

  • Byron Auguste:

    Thirty million today have the skills, based on the work they're doing, for jobs that pay at least 50 percent more than the jobs they're in.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, how to get those tens of millions of low-wage workers better opportunities? Government job training programs are one route, like Back to Work Rhode Island, where then-Governor Gina Raimondo used federal CARES Act money to fund training programs in areas where employers couldn't fill jobs.

    Gina Raimondo, U.S. Secretary of Commerce: We will tailor these training initiatives so that, when you hire someone, you have confidence they're going to be able to do the job.

  • Paul Solman:

    Some 4,000 Rhode Islanders have already graduated into new higher-paying jobs. But, in general, says Professor Doug Besharov, government isn't the ideal overseer.

    Douglas Besharov, University of Maryland: It doesn't learn fast enough. It fights the last war. And change is happening more rapidly as we speak. And it will continue to happen. And I think government will be left behind.

  • Ariella Spitzer, Mathematica Policy Research:

    There's a huge body of research on government job training. And, overall, I would say the results are unfortunately disappointing.

  • Paul Solman:

    Economist Ariella Spitzer studies job training.

  • Ariella Spitzer:

    The good ones, we're seeing at most 5 to 10 percent earnings increase.

  • Paul Solman:

    Moreover, government job training programs reach only a couple of hundred thousand people a year. So what about those coding camps we hear so much about? Well, many of them cost money to attend, at the very least cost trainees the income they forego while training. Plus, they tend to be short-term.

  • Ankur Gopal, CEO, Interapt:

    The idea is great. The execution is not.

  • Paul Solman:

    In Louisville Kentucky, entrepreneur Ankur Gopal has hit on apprenticeships, lengthy programs where trainees are paid, as a way of staffing his mobile software firm, Interapt.

    An especially stunning success story, single mother April Hickman, raised in foster care, homeless before she applied for an Interapt apprenticeship.

    Of all the foster kids you have known, given the same kind of opportunity, same kind of training, what percentage of them could what you're doing now?

  • April Hickman, Apprentice, Interapt:

    Oh, gosh, a great number, because it's problem solving. And if there's one thing that we're good at, it's problem solving, because we have had to.

  • Paul Solman:

    Alex Hughes worked in the coal industry before making the switch to software.

    What percentage of people in the coal industry could do jobs as sophisticated as what you're doing here?

  • Alex Hughes, Lead Software Developer, Interapt:

    That's 100 percent. It's a very technical industry. And so they're always having to learn and adapt.

  • Paul Solman:

    In fact, every successful apprentice I interviewed for this series claimed that between 50 and 100 percent of those in their position could do the same, given the chance.

    IBM human resources executive Kelli Jordan agreed.

    Kelli Jordan, Director of Career, Skills and Performance, IBM: Anybody can make that transition.

  • Paul Solman:

    But it can't be anything, right? It's got to be a lot of people who just can't do this, no?

  • Kelli Jordan:

    I think it's possible that anybody probably could if they have got the right motivation, but I think the other side of that coin is, companies have to be more willing to think differently.

  • Paul Solman:

    Differently enough to look for talent among those without the usual educational credentials and experience.

    At IBM, that included rideshare driver Adquena Faine, nail technician Mariana Perez, dog trainer Jennifer Burgess, retail store manager Ray Rodriguez. They all turned underappreciated, underpaid skills into high-skill/high-paying jobs at IBM. How high-paying?

  • Jennifer Burgess, IBM:

    I have tripled in salary that from what I have ever made in my life.

  • Paul Solman:

    And though Jennifer burgess was trained and credentialed as a project manager, she says her skill set isn't that different from dog training.

  • Jennifer Burgess:

    Because it's about training the humans to be able to do what you need them to do.

  • Paul Solman:

    But is Jennifer Burgess typical or unusual?

  • Douglas Besharov:

    The answer is we don't know how many people can do it.

  • Paul Solman:

    This is Doug Besharov.

  • Douglas Besharov:

    The more people see other people doing these jobs, the more they will change their behavior in school, in the community. It is a dynamic process where people get expectations and decide, you know, I can be like him.

  • Ariella Spitzer:

    There's an inclination to focus on the success stories. But we also have to be realistic about the fact that there are a lot of cases where this is not working.

  • Paul Solman:

    On the other hand says, Ariella Spitzer:

  • Ariella Spitzer:

    I think that just because prior job training programs have not been as effective as we had hoped they would be doesn't mean that the next generation of job training programs can't be.

  • Paul Solman:

    And so it could be that IBM, for example, or Interapt have a model that could be replicated and could be extremely effective?

  • Ariella Spitzer:

    Absolutely, and I think that it's important for companies like that to be really transparent about what they're doing, so that we can make those strategies available to other people.

  • Paul Solman:

    Other people like formerly homeless single mother April Hickman.

  • April Hickman:

    This company is amazing because I came in knowing that they saw me and they wanted to help me. Before, I didn't have the skill to get out of where we were. But I do now.

  • Paul Solman:

    And she's already gotten her first promotion.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.

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