As college becomes more one-size-fits all, trades bring opportunity for many

Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton Hornbeck
Kenton is a reporter for LINK nky. Email him at [email protected]

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Ryan Hernandez always loved working with his hands. When he was a teenager, he helped his father fix cars in their garage.

While Hernandez was a student at Campbell County High School, he began weighing his career options as his senior year drew closer. Hernandez was unsure a traditional four-year college education was the right career path for him straight out of high school. 

Hernandez told LINK nky he was weary of accumulating student loan debt, and was excited for an opportunity to earn wages after he graduated. That’s when he translated his love for working with his hands into pursuing trade education though the Campbell County Area & Technology Center.

“I started getting into being an electrician in high school, Hernandez said. “A few people I knew were electricians. That was the start of my journey from there. I knew I’d be able to work somewhere and have an opportunity to get paid while I was working.”

The 22-year-old Hernandez is now an electrician working for M&M Service in Covington. He’s pursuing his journeyman’s license and master electrician license.

Statistically speaking, earning a college diploma is the most surefire way to improve employment prospects and earning potential throughout a person’s lifetime. According to the Association of Public & Land Grant Universities, people with a bachelor’s degree annually earn $32,000 more than those whose highest degree is a high school diploma.

However, attending college is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, three out of 10 high school grads who go on to four-year public universities haven’t earned degrees within six years. The number is more than one in five for students attending four-year private colleges.

Increases in college tuition prices are seen as a deterrent for some prospective students. College tuition prices have risen 169 percent from 1980 to 2020, according to a report from the Georgetown University Center on Education & the Workforce. 

The report cites structural changes to the US economy, increasing postsecondary education costs, and racial and class inequality as some of the factors facing modern young people when transitioning toward economic independence as adults. 

Austin Stull, a former student at Pendleton County High School, personally thought pursuing a career as an electrician would be the most financially responsible decision for him and his family.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into debt,” Stull said. “There’s also not always a guaranteed job after you’re done getting the degree.”

Similar to Hernandez, Stull enjoyed working with his hands while growing up. Stull felt he could earn more money right out of high school if he pursued a career as an electrician. Now 23-years-old, Stull is an electrician for United Electric in Cincinnati. 

In Covington, there are open jobs for skilled laborers as the city continues reviving historic buildings within their urban core. There are 94 jobs each year supported by permit activity in Covington’s local and national register historic districts, according to a labor analysis done by consultant Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics.

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To fill these roles, city leaders in Covington are supporting the development of a Heritage Trades Academy. The school would teach students artisan trades such as masonry, carpentry and plastering.

“These are as much workforce development issues as they are business development, but in reality you can’t separate the two,” Covington Economic Director Tom West said. “The more talented and skilled the local workforce, the more vibrant and sustainable the local economy.”

When Interstate 75 was constructed through Kenton and Boone counties, a laborer working on the project was paid enough to own a home and support a family of four with a single income stream.

Over the years, the appeal of trade professions has diminished in the eyes of younger generations. The U.S. is facing a widening age gap for skilled laborers such as plumbers and electricians. In 2019, U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics showed that nearly 40 percent of skilled laborers are 45-years or older. In contrast, only 22 percent of skilled laborers are 25 to 34-years-old.

“A substantially bigger percentage of people in the trades are age 55 plus,” said Vicki Berling, director of professional development at the Building Industry Association of Northern Kentucky. “A substantially smaller number are even in that middle age range, age 30 to 45,” 

Some local businesses say they’ve been hard pressed to find young workers willing to go into the trades. DuPont Plumbing, a family owned plumbing business in Newport, emphasizes recruiting young people into their business, while recognizing the overall challenges of recruitment.

“Any trade, in almost any industry, is extremely pressed to find young workers,” said John Caim, a consultant and general manager at DuPont Plumbing. “It’s very difficult. We’ve gone through maybe a generation of telling everyone that the only path for career success is through traditional academic corridors.”

Caim said DuPont actually expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many workers found the monotony of their office jobs unfulfilling, quitting their old career to pursue a new career in plumbing.

Employers and trade educators say one reason for the skilled trade shortage has been the institutional push by K-12 school districts, and universities, for students to attend a four-year college. Students can incur thousands of dollars in student loan debt in pursuit of a degree.

The average public university student borrows $30,030 in order to earn a bachelor’s degree, according to educationdata.org.

“We were indiscriminate about the message,” Berling said. “We didn’t let students know there were other options for great careers if that’s the path they want to pick. Everyone went off to college, which meant nobody was really entering the trades at the same percentage as it happened two decades ago. Now we have people who would like to retire doing the work, but they can’t because there’s no one coming behind them.”

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Caim attributes a negative societal stigma to the labels “blue and white collar” for discouraging students to pursue trade careers. Blue collar is regarded as a working class person with a career in manual labor, such as a plumber or welder, while white collar is referred to as a person who works in a professional, administrative or managerial job, such as a lawyer or doctor. 

“In the manufacturing age of education it was: Go to school, get a lot of education, find a job, work for a big company. Things will be happy ever after,” Caim said. “As opposed to, at that time, going out and working in the trades. You don’t want to work in a factory. You want to work up in the office. We started that differentiation of blue collar, white collar and no collar. People started saying, ‘well you don’t want to be blue collar, you want to be white collar.’” 

Northern Kentucky business leaders, government officials, and educational institutions have begun to grapple with the shortage of trade laborers among the youth of the region. Now, there has been a concerted effort by local leaders to reverse the trend. Private institutions such as the Enzweiler Building Institute have continued to devote greater resources into trade education.

Berling works with the EBI, a local trade school based in Erlanger. The EBI has been teaching Northern Kentuckians trade skills since 1967, when they first offered a carpentry training program. The school expanded in later years, and now offers comprehensive programs for seven trades and a four-year program for electricians. The program boasts approximately 2,000 graduates who have gone on to work in trades.

EBI is expanding into Covington in 2022, and will open a Covington Campus at the former Burlington Coat Factory space in the Latonia Plaza shopping center. 

EBI says the primary goals of their expansion into Covington is to target chronic unemployment by educating the workforce on trade jobs, improving residents’ access to skills training, and helping the construction industry fill a critical need for skilled workers. 

Berling said addressing the representation gap among women and students of color in skilled labor trades is also a main focus of the EBI.

“If you look at the representation within the skilled trades from students of color and women, it’s a very small percentage,” Berling said. “They’re not relying on a pathway that is common to them. We’re still looking at incentives to get those two groups in particular into the trades.”

According to an analysis by Contractor Magazine, women represent 10 percent of the workers in skilled trades, despite comprising nearing half of the national workforce, and black people represent 6.3 percent of all construction workers.

Northern Kentucky K-12 institutions are also placing a spotlight on career and technical education. Phil Griffin, founder of AnyWeather and Trades NKY, a nonprofit involved in promoting trade education to students, said he’s been impressed with many local school districts’ pursuit of advancing their trade education curriculum.

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“One of the things that I’m most impressed with over the last several years is going back and talking with the schools and trying to figure out solutions for career and technical education,” Griffin said. “Just to see their openness and how far the schools have come has been impressive.”

David Hartman is an assistant principal at Holmes High School and is the Director of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program at the school. Hartman said approximately 85 percent of the students at Holmes are enrolled in the CTE program.

“The end game for us is that when a student walks across the stage for graduation, we want them to have the opportunity to go to college, a technical school, or go into a trade,” Hartman said. “We want our students to have those options.”

Education leaders at Holmes say they want students to get true, hands-on experience in the classroom so they can apply it to their future careers.

Holmes offers pathways in a variety of clusters such as health sciences, information technology, construction technology, manufacturing technology, business and marketing and media arts. Underneath those clusters are courses offered for trades such as carpentry and welding. Hartman said carpentry is one of the most popular trade classes at Holmes.

Holmes works hand-in-hand with Gateway Community and Technical College and local industry leaders in order to tweak their CTE offerings to better suit the needs of regional employers. Holmes, in coordination with Gateway, offers dual-credit courses so students can earn credits for their technical education earlier in their high school career. This eases financial burden and shortens the timeline for students. 

“We try to stay ahead of the curve in regards to industry needs,” Hartman said. “Manufacturing is a need. Healthcare is a need. We want to prepare all our students to enter their career fields with the proper education, so they can seamlessly transition into the workforce.”

As the Northern Kentucky economy expands, so too must their workforce. Leaders in all sectors, from employers to educational institutions, are diversifying educational opportunities for all students, not just the ones preparing to enter university.

“I had a mother tell me that a student had his best year academically as a senior because there wasn’t really a place for him, and our program helped him see that he could really be a shining star too,” Berling said. “We can help students find something that does make them excited about the prospect of working. I don’t have to have too many stories like that to make me happy to come into work everyday.”

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