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Jobless claims were high again this past week with more than 860,000 people filing for unemployment benefits for the first time. Millions of people are still looking for work, but some employers say they can't find enough skilled workers for certain jobs. That is due in part, they say, because of stigmas that need to change. Paul Solman reports for our series "Work Shift.”
Jobless claims were high again this past week. More than 860,000 people filed claims. Millions of people are still looking for work.
But some employers say they can't find enough skilled workers for certain jobs. That's due, in part, they say, to stigmas that need to change.
Paul Solman has the story for our series Work Shift, which focuses on navigating the job market in a post-COVID economy.
Get ready. Get ready. Get ready.
Mike Rowe, man on a mission.
To get dirty. To get dirty.
For years on the Discovery Channel, Rowe was America's hands-on evangelist for dirty jobs.
I am so sorry.
Paving a road.
You dump it. You flatten it.
Replacing an oil filter on a wind turbine.
Now, that's a nasty, nasty, nasty little job.
After years of romanticizing the unromantic…
It's all about the glamour.
Rowe put money where his body was, the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which has awarded about 1,000 scholarships, totaling $5 million dollars so far.
Typically, what we do is pay for the fee that is due to a trade school or an apprenticeship program or sometimes a community college.
Rowe has to evangelize because fewer kids than ever believe in dirty jobs.
Before COVID, there were 7.3 million open jobs, the majority of which didn't require a four-year degree.
Seattle plumbing contractor Vinnie Sposari:
Working outside in the cold and the rain, crawling under houses, those are the things we as plumbers do. Kids these days, they don't want to put the effort in to get there.
But in a low-wage-heavy economy, plumbing apprenticeships start at close to $20 an hour nowadays. And after just a few years and a license, top earners can make $70,000 and up.
Unfortunately, dirty jobs have had an increasingly bad image, says Mike Rowe. And he thinks he knows why.
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.
The culprit, in his view, the supposed cachet of college.
In the eyes of many parents, and in the eyes of many counselors, the trade school was the thing you did if you weren't cut out for university.
How many of you would seriously consider a career in one of the trades?
A high school class in industrial Lake Charles, Louisiana, anchor of Calcasieu Parish, which President Trump carried by better than 2-1. How many of these kids would consider a future in the trades?
That one is Jacob Brewster, who loves woodworking, and yet he feels the pressure.
It's like, go to college, go to college. There's barely anybody saying, go to trade school.
Not saying it to the 15 percent of kids who drop out of high school before graduating, nor to the additional 50 percent-plus who don't finish college.
Trade school as post-secondary education can be a ticket to a six-figure income, but it's sneered at by kids, parents and teachers alike.
That's not an option that's often presented to us, like, this is not for you.
At least here, there is somewhat of a stigma if you don't go into college.
I have to go to college or I'm nothing, you know?
I think the stigma is real.
Brenda DeFelice has taught in Southwest Louisiana for 30 years.
Because we have so much industry and we do have a lot of very successful tradespeople here who make a lot of money, I think, in our area, it's less so. But it's still there.
Atlanta electrician Tonya Hicks sees the same bias in her community, even though unemployment is famously much higher for African Americans.
After the civil rights movement, a lot of African-American children were encouraged to go to college instead.
Sometimes, in the African-American culture, blue-collar workers are looked down and like they are less than if you do not have a college degree.
In fact, college grads earn 74 percent more than those with only a high school diploma, but not that much more than skilled tradespeople, median income of $54,000 a year for a bachelor's degree vs. $51,000 for electricians, #46,000 for plumbers, although tradespeople may have somewhat shorter careers.
But, regardless, Mike Rowe says there's a disconnect.
If you look at the way colleges have been able to raise their tuitions, and if you look at the speed with which the skills gap has widened, and if you look at the number of kids who are out there well-educated, but hopelessly in debt and not trained for a multitude of good jobs that actually exist, you begin to see the degree to which we're disconnected.
But as an economist might ask, or a Buddhist, what do you mean by a good job?
I have nothing against people that want to go to college. However, they can't find a job, and now they're just in just this insurmountable debt.
Michael Barbosa, now 26, had a scholarship to attend college, but dropped out.
I worked as a barista and a grocery store clerk for minimum wage. It was really hard to get by. The only way to really get by was to work a lot of hours and multiple jobs.
But on one of them, working in construction supply, he had his epiphany.
When I was doing my drywall stocking, I ran into a lot of plumbers. And they would ask me, why are you just drywall stocking? Says, don't you want to learn a trade?
There is so much hands-on work.
Barbosa is now training to be a plumber, and being paid $16 an hour to learn.
Daniel Stanke finished the same program, is now an apprentice plumber.
Both my parents went and graduated from college. My original plan was to become a history teacher. About halfway through, though, I kind of fell out of love with that idea, kind of started looking around at other opportunities, potentially.
His boss says he will make six figures this year.
And then there are those few, like Sarah Schnabel, who graduated with a math degree from Ivy League Cornell.
Growing up, it was always like, oh, you went to the trade school because you didn't do well in school. I still get comments from my family, like, why are you doing this?
She now works with electrician Brian LaMorte, who graduated from Towson University in Maryland with a computer degree.
In college, would you have thought that you would become an electrician?
At that point, I figured I'm training myself to go out and work for some big company and be a systems analyst or something like that.
But, in reality, I eventually came to find, you can become replaced very easily. You can become very comfortable and then become obsolete very fast in the tech world.
Look, says Mike Rowe:
A liberal arts education is not the enemy. I have got one. It served me well. But there are entire categories of work that are shrouded in mystery. And if we don't demystify them and destigmatize them, we're going to be waiting for plumbers and electricians for a long, long time.
Is the gap closing? Is the stigma beginning to dissolve or no?
I think it is. And, perversely, I think COVID might have something to do with it. I'm sure you have noticed there's a new word that's really been injected into the lexicon: essential.
Which is, in fact, just how Vinnie Sposari's plumbing apprentices feel.
Sometimes, you're just people's heroes, especially if they have been in a bad spot for a couple of days.
They actually have called me heroes. It's just great, you know?
I can't tell you the amount of pride from people in our industry, how we felt that we needed to keep the country going. And we have the jobs of the future for sustainability and energy and water conservation.
As you can tell from the music, I'm about to wrap things up.
All of which makes Mike Rowe think or maybe hope:
When things get back to normal, this country is going to enter a new age of work, a new age of making things and fixing things and building things, an age where skilled workers are going to be in demand like never before.
We will see.
For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.
Such a great report. Thank you.
Watch the Full Episode
Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
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