The Future of Skilled Trades Careers
If you’re going into a career for a lifestyle – that’s fine. That’s the dream. But don’t ever think it’s a one and done path. It’s not.
What can you expect from your career if you enter the skilled trades over the next decade? Humans are poor predictors of the future, but based on current and historical work environments, economic trends, and evidence from various industries, we know one thing is certain: change is inevitable.
There’s an old story that once upon a time you could choose to be an electrician, crane operator, plumber, machinist, welder, then land an apprenticeship and join the union, earn your journey card and live happily ever after. The writers of this article are in their mid-60s, and this has not been remotely true in our lifetimes. Nor was it true for our parent’s generation whose careers reached back to the 1940s. We doubt this fantasy of learning one skill one time has ever led to living happily ever after.
Take Uncle Bug, Bart’s late father-in-law. Bug was an instrumentation and electrical repairman for the same Houston based refinery for over 40 years. Bug drove the same route, went into the same gate, and clocked into the same shop every day for 40 years.
Bug started his career in the 1970’s which means he started before the digital age. He retired when the digital age was in full swing and growing rapidly. However, even though Bug did the same thing every day he had to learn and change as new technologies were introduced. Had Bug failed to keep up, he would not have lasted 10 years.
What Can You Do About Your Career?
Never leave your career in the hands of your boss, your company, or your friends. Ultimately you are the only person responsible for your own success.
If you’re reading this through NCCER, you’re already on the right track. Every career in every sector demands continuous education to keep pace. The pressures of technological, environmental and social change mean anyone hoping to build a successful career will need to cycle through a process of learning, adapting and mastering for as long as they work. And they will have to repeat that cycle many times.
Beginning any career means you need some level of skill. Even laborers need to know how to push a wheelbarrow or dig a ditch. The most essential skill, however, is the skill to learn.
During your career you will shift into new jobs requiring new skills. Most likely you will also have the opportunity to shift into new industries. Most of us end up with jobs and skills that didn’t exist at the beginning of our careers. That’s the exciting part.
The not-so-exciting, and downright scary part? Heavy industries such as construction, manufacturing, and oil and gas repeat cycles of growth and hiring followed by periods of cutbacks, layoffs and job destruction. It takes a good set of survival skills to hold on for a lifelong ride on this rollercoaster.
We did some research and interviewed senior managers who came up through the trades. We were struck by how much things really haven’t changed. Right now, in these times of shortages, managers feel the pressure to hire as many people as they can – the combination of Boomer retirements, Covid, and supply chain chaos demands it. However, to the person, they acknowledged that in a few years and perhaps sooner, when the cycle reverses, they may be forced to lay people off and perhaps eliminate those jobs permanently.
Is this the definition of a good career? If you’re willing to withstand the change, definitely. But the demands on you and your ability to maintain a current and relevant skill set are significant. Most industries cycle. Some, like the oil and gas industry, swing quite dramatically. Yet people are able to prosper within them for their entire careers.
What do these demands entail? Overwhelmingly, the driver is technological change. Historically, manufacturers have driven technological change through societies and economies since the very beginning of manufacturing.
In some sectors, change has been much slower. Down the street where houses are being built, carpenters still swing hammers, plumbers still join pipes, and electricians still string wire. But new technologies are augmenting and sometimes replacing these jobs.
3D printing has given modular construction a huge boost and, in some sectors, a huge advantage. It has turned slow-moving hand-work into rapid assembly. In a modern automobile plant, a few hundred people tend to the robots that do the work formerly performed by the back-breaking and repetitive labors of thousands of people.
Drones and satellite imagery revolutionized prospecting, farming, surveying and untold numbers of other fields. Your favorite mechanic who tuned your car like an artist is now a technician who uses complex testing equipment and databases to locate the module that needs switching out in order to keep your engine running.
Operators sit in the comfort of a climate-controlled trailer in a chair that used to be used only for online gaming, operating bulldozers remotely. In a future of driverless trucks and pilotless ships (and possibly planes), can operator-less cranes be that far away?
As time goes on, you will see fewer and fewer people swinging hammers and its equivalent for a living. If the goals of your career begin and end with a lifestyle centered on physical skilled trades work, dig deep into your education and develop exceptional quality to your craft, because there will be far fewer of you before your career is over.
Does this mean that welding or machining is a dead end? Certainly not! Aside from technological change, the complexity of trades-based work has and will continue to grow. Your options are as limited as your imagination. If you have the drive and ability, your leadership skills will be needed by your teams, wherever you are. If you have a head for numbers and organization, the demand for project management and related skills will only grow with time. And if you are technology-driven, the sky’s the limit.
Within a career, the need to evolve in a ruthlessly competitive world is as essential as it is eternal. Those that evolve succeed, and those that ignore this fact and stubbornly hold onto “the old ways” will fail. Without exception. Lifelong learning is the one skill that will pull you through every change a skilled-trades career throws your way.
Peter Krammer has been helping leaders put their heads and their hearts into their businesses for more than 30 years. Peter, Senior Partner with Okos Partners, is a consultant, trainer, program designer, and entrepreneur. Okos Partners helps businesses align their Business and People strategies, visit https://okospartners.com/ to learn more.
Bart Gragg is President of Blue Collar University®. He works with business leaders, managers, and supervisors to plan and work more effectively with each other. Bart and Peter are co-authors of the upcoming book, The Trouble with the Safety Curve: What and How We have to Change to Get to Zero Incidents.