There’s a common misconception that a college degree is the main route to a successful career, but jobs in trades are well-paying, satisfying, and widely available.
Student loan debt has almost quadrupled over the last two decades and is now far outpacing auto loans and credit card debt in the U.S., according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. More than $1.7 trillion in student loans could turn into a debt crisis for America, which raises the question: Do all students need to go to college to have a successful career?
There’s a common misconception that a college degree is the main route to a successful career. While a four-year college degree is a great fit for many Americans, it’s not the right option for everyone. Too often, recent college graduates search for a well-paying job and discover their degree’s value isn’t what they expected, and they’re stuck with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Middle school and high school students should consider their future and weigh all the options, including broadening their considerations to include a career path in the trades. For example, a pipefitter earns $68,000 on average and that number can grow past six figures in some trade fields.
Today, more than half of America’s students finish higher education with debt, and it takes them a long time to pay it off. In 2022, the average federal student loan debt was $37,358. Per the Education Data Initiative, the average federal student loan interest rate in 2023 is 6.36 percent. The interest rate among all federal student loans increased 24 percent — up from 4.12 percent — between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 academic years. The median annual salary in the U.S. by age bracket is $35,568 for full-time workers from age 20-24 and $50,700 for 25-34, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Using Nerd Wallet’s discretionary income calculator, a $35,568 annual salary would estimate 20 percent of your discretionary income at $366 a month. Dave Ramsey’s student loan payoff calculator estimates that at that salary it will take a student until June 2035 to pay off their student loans, including paying $16,555 in interest on top of the principal.
To remain competitive, our nation needs to prepare our citizens to meet workforce demands, including the demands in the trade industries. In my state of Tennessee, along with many other well-run states in the country, we continue to see population growth from inbound moves. As a result, the construction industry is booming, which also means there are tremendous job opportunities in the trades, including home building, commercial construction, road building, and more.
Contrary to perception, these jobs are not all heavy-duty. There are design careers, drone operator jobs, and many other career pathways. Road builders, equipment operators, surveyors, carpenters, boilermakers, electricians, plumbers, welders, and cement and brick masons — the career paths in the trades are varied and companies are hiring for these positions now.
One of the best parts about the trades is that you can start earning an income on day one. Many companies offer their own training programs and apprenticeships to students. In Tennessee, we offer more than 100 training programs for the trades and there are many other opportunities for on-the-job training.
Many states around the country need more skilled workers to meet demand. The trades industry labor workforce is both shrinking and aging — with the average tradesperson being 46 years old. Furthermore, only one tradesperson is entering the industry for every five that are retiring. The demand has never been greater, with millions of workers needed across the country.
We also need more women entering the trades. Females currently make up only 10 percent of the construction labor force.
Currently, 90 percent of apprentices in the trades find jobs when they’ve finished their training. Commercial construction tradespeople are being paid on average 33 percent more than the average worker. Another benefit of being in the trades is that workers can progress in their careers to a leadership level within a company or take their experience and start their own business.
People from all walks of life have the opportunity to enter a high-quality, high-paying career path in the trades from the start, with no student loan debt. They can fill important roles in building communities across the nation, and address the need for certified craft professionals with technical skills.
Hard to Find Such Work
Our organization, Go Build Tennessee, is a nonprofit focused on promoting pathways of success for students graduating from high school and those already out of school who do not plan or need to attend a four-year university. The trades are also a great opportunity for those looking to change career paths because they are not able to find a quality job in the field they studied or simply desire a career change.
We encourage young people all across the country to consider careers in the skilled trades. They should connect with related nonprofits, state departments of labor and workforce development, local chambers, and companies involved in the trades to learn more about their state’s career paths and training programs.
States should provide students with training in the trades, as Tennessee does, starting with Career Technical Education courses in middle and high school to help expose students to the trades and then through training programs and apprenticeships to help students enter the trades.
We’ll be launching a job quiz tool in early March to help those considering the trades to learn about the dozens of career paths that are available after high school. It will include information about average salaries and training commitments. We encourage all students to explore their options, review training programs, and talk with people in the industry to hear about their experiences and their career.
Kent Starwalt serves as executive vice president of the Tennessee Road Builders Association and is an ex officio board member of the nonprofit Go Build Tennessee. You can follow the organization on Instagram at @gobuildtennessee.