By U.S. Congressman Glenn Grothman
While we are currently experiencing a brief economic speedbump, I am hopeful that by this time next year, our economy will again be strong, and we’ll be facing the challenge of finding the qualified skilled laborers necessary for construction, manufacturing and health care.
We tell our kids to stay in school, study hard, then they will be able to go to college. For many years, it has been widely accepted that “college” means going to a liberal arts school and earning a four-year degree, but is this the best option for all students? Though earning a traditional four-year degree is an outstanding achievement and has many benefits, we often push students into thinking that this is the height of achievement when, in fact, many of them would be happier, earn more money and accrue less debt by learning a construction trade.
As I travel around Wisconsin, I hear this story too often, “I graduated high school at 18, got a bachelor’s degree at 22 and worked in that field for five years. I did not like what I was doing, was not making a lot of money and could only make minimum payments on my student loan debt. So, I quit my job, went back to school to learn a skill and now use the skill in my new job, where I am happier and making more money than I did before. I am now 35 and finally starting to make a dent in the student loan debt from my bachelor’s degree.”
I am glad that these individuals have found a job they love with a salary that allows them to truly live. But they could have started their journey to being debt-free, owning a house and starting a family when they were 22 instead of 35 if they had known about technical college, apprenticeships and all the career and technical education options available. Instead, students are too often told that traditional four-year degrees are the turnkey to a great life.
Young adults should start choosing higher education paths that best suit their needs, while incurring the least amount of student debt and learning skills that are always in demand. There is a bias in our society that a traditional four-year degree is the best option for every student. In reality, many of them would be happier, and often make more money, if they had pursued a construction trade after high school. I often speak with employers who tell me that they are in desperate need of skilled employees but cannot find anyone with the necessary skill sets. These are important jobs and we need to be encouraging students to consider going to technical school and completing apprenticeships to obtain them.
We need to let our children know just how in-demand skilled jobs are and how much money they can make. Over the past several years, companies ranging from small businesses to large multinational corporations have experienced a significant skilled labor shortage. By encouraging students to pursue a hands-on skill, we are increasing opportunities for Wisconsinites to join the skilled labor force and acquire the local high-demand, high-paying jobs that employers are eager to fill.
Other areas in the country do not look like Wisconsin. Not only are the people and the climate different, but they have different industries. We have far more factories, heavy machinery and manufacturing jobs than most parts of the country. In fact, Wisconsin ranks second in total percentage of manufacturing jobs. This means that, while you and I know that the skilled labor gap exists and is a growing problem, people from different states, including their Congressional representatives — my colleagues — do not have a grasp on just how serious a problem this shortage of workers is.
Apprenticeships offer a way for those seeking to enter the high-demand skilled labor market to get invaluable on-the-job experience. The U.S. Department of Labor has reported that 94% of individuals that complete apprenticeship programs not only find jobs, but make an average starting salary of $70,000, much higher than most four-year college graduates. And the bonus is that they are earning their certification without a mountain of student loan debt.
I believe we are rapidly making progress in the fight to prepare students to fill these skilled jobs. As part of a larger appropriations bill in December 2019, Congress included provisions that will allow individuals with 529 college savings accounts to use the money they have saved for apprenticeship programs.
These 529 plans work much like a retirement account. You can contribute a certain amount each year and the sum will be invested into the stock market, handled by a professional and grow at a faster pace than a traditional checking or savings account at the bank. New parents will often open 529 accounts for their newborn children so they will have a pool of funds to draw from to pay their tuition when the time comes. The only caveat is that this money was only for K-12 or college tuition.
Check out this episode of Money Jobs, where individuals who went to college are now construction apprentices making a good living; and they love it!
I believe we are rapidly making progress in the fight to prepare students to fill these skilled jobs.
With apprenticeships gaining popularity (rightly so), this change was long overdue. The wealth of a country does not come from how many lawyers or politicians it has, but by what it builds. By allowing 529 plans to be used for apprenticeship programs, apprentices can apply their 529 savings to buy necessary tools and equipment. It helps more people to reach their potential and build the things we need.
Building things is part of the Wisconsin tradition. We are on the cutting edge of a movement in higher education that will allow us to replenish the skilled labor force and continue our proud tradition. I look forward to the continuing the fight to build recognition for technical education and apprenticeships and advocate for our children to be better equipped to fill the skilled jobs of tomorrow.
As I (tongue-in-cheek) tell people in my travels throughout Wisconsin to fish fries, county fairs, firemens’ picnics and the like, skilled labor is not for everybody. Some people cannot work with their hands and will invariably be forced to get a traditional four-year college degree. But, for those who have the skills and ability to help our society advance, I will strongly encourage a skills based education and the apprenticeships that are so vital to it.
In closing, I would like to thank the contractors reading this. I have always believed that being involved in construction provides not only the satisfaction of seeing what you have built, but the reward of knowing that you have contributed something positive to society that others use every day.