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Where the Jobs Are: Good Pay, Sure Work, and Paid Training in the Skilled Trades

By some measurements, the American economy is slowly pulling its way out of the huge economic mess of the past decade.[1] For many unemployed and underemployed workers, though, the economy still feels like a sham. While the officially released numbers point to a much lower unemployment rate (~4.5%), the U-6 indicates that nearly 10% of Americans who can work are not working or working in a way that would be considered "gainfully employed."

One of the surest routes out of unemployment is a not-so-hidden secret within our economy: a large number of unmet jobs that continues to grow every year. That pool is skilled labor and trade jobs, areas where employers are currently seeking millions -- yes millions -- of workers to fill the many unfilled positions. We're not talking about one or two industries or low-wage areas like food service. Most of these jobs pay well, what some might call a "living wage" and more, with a promising amount of growth potential. It's the reason why Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame explained that there are "5.6 Million Reasons to Stop Ignoring the Skills Gap".[2] He isn't lying.

Electricians, truck drivers, masonry workers, carpenters, construction workers, plumbers, welders, oil industry workers, HVAC specialists, mechanics. Everyone knows that these careers exist. However, the strong push in American society toward 4-year college degrees that lead toward white-collar service industry jobs has left a dangerously large number of skilled labor and trade jobs empty. Anyone currently unemployed or underemployed who has yet to investigate the skilled trade areas should know this: these jobs are available, right now, and in many cases, the education is either low cost or completely free. In some cases, you can even find apprenticeships that will pay you while you learn the job.

Skilled Labor: A Closer Look
There's a lot of skepticism among many unemployed people regarding training programs. Far too many people have been burned by high-cost trade industry schools that only turned out to be low-quality education mills. The recent shutdown of ITT Technical Institute is a perfect example of this.[3] Many of these schools draw in eager students, ready to learn trade skills, only to leave many people not only still jobless, but saddled with a large amount of student loan debt. Abusive institutions do exist, but that's a reason to be careful, not a reason to give up. Here are a few options that can deliver life-changing results.

The trucking/freight industry is desperate for workers. There are around 50,000 unfilled jobs in the trucking industry, a number that has been growing and will continue to grow in the coming years.[4] Trucking isn't easy by any measure. Long hours on the road can be a strain on both the body and relationships. But trucking can pay off, and well. Truck drivers earn a median salary of around $40,000, or around $20 an hour.[5] Better yet, most trucking companies will pay new drivers to earn their CDL as well as pay them during the training. Paid training has become a standard in the trucking industry, and given the demand for drivers, wages are highly competitive.

Electricians are in high demand. According to the Independent Electrical Contractors organizations, electrician demand, and job growth continues to increase, with many jobs remaining unfilled. The IEC provides paid apprenticeship programs to thousands of individuals each year. Good electrical training ensures a lifetime of good, well-paying jobs. The median salary for an electrician is over $50,000 a year.[6] Even the lowest paid electricians earn more than $30,000 a year. You'll earn less than that as an apprentice, but full, successful training results in excellent pay.

Iron working and welding continue to grow in demand. Don't let the growth in plastics and other alternative materials fool you: Ironworking is still one of the backbones of our country's infrastructure. Demand for ironworkers continues to grow at about a 9% rate.[7] Salaries in this industry are also high, with an $24.00/hour wage, or around $50,000 a year salary. Apprenticeships are widely available in this industry as well. The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union provides a great resource for those looking for those paid apprenticeship programs.

Union apprenticeships are a good step for those who want a guaranteed job. Many trade jobs are commonly unionized. Especially in right-to-work states (states where union membership is not mandatory), unions are always looking for new members. Part of those union dues goes toward training new people into the trade. If you're looking to get into the construction industry or manufacturing industry, both places where a huge skills gap exists, try a union apprenticeship program.

Try a state-level apprenticeship cooperative. Some states have such a dire need for skilled trade professionals that different unions and programs will combine their resources to find new workers and place them into apprenticeships. For example, the California Apprenticeship Coordinators Association has an extremely large list of apprenticeship programs covering every almost skilled trade area imaginable. That includes common and well-known trades, such as electrician, welder, mason or HVAC, and less common trades, including millwrights, solar turbine workers, lithographers, boilermakers and bricklayers (another high demand field).

Plumbers are in high demand -- and likely always will be. Job growth for this industry exceeds 10% a year.[8] There are tens of thousands of unfilled jobs, meaning anyone looking to be a plumber likely will find a position. Because of this need, many plumber's unions offer paid apprenticeships for interested future workers. Salaries and wages for plumbers are also high, with median salaries exceeding $50,000 a year and hourly wages over $24.00 an hour.

Use the Trade Skills Gap to Your Advantage
The trade skills gap currently shows no signs of going away anytime soon. For unemployed and underemployed people looking for work, this is quite possibly one of the best times to be a hard worker. In this case, hard work and persistence will pay off. Blue-collar work may be viewed with some negativity these days, but much of that negativity is highly unwarranted. Skilled labor is not only necessary; it is well-paid honest work with much more growth potential than many white-collar careers.