Many young New Jerseyans continue to have strong reservations about the current job market even as our state economy steadily reopens. A recent OnePoll survey commissioned by Universal Technical Institute found that 64% of New Jersey residents ages 18-35 are not confident that all office jobs will come back after the pandemic. Meanwhile, many workers remain reluctant to enter or re-enter some non-office fields of employment, in part because of the volatility brought on the pandemic.
Their fears are understandable. Many industries have been upended or decimated by the COVID pandemic and may not fully recover for some time. But there are skilled trade industries throughout the country that desperately needed more workers before the pandemic and will continue to need workers when we are past the pandemic. We need to encourage more young New Jerseyans to enter skilled trades to fill an ever-growing demand for labor, curb unemployment and underemployment, and help fuel our state’s continuing economic recovery.
On the face of it, the numbers and success stories seem like they should be enough to attract new workers into the skilled trades. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an annual average of 43,400 job openings nationwide for welders every year through 2029. For welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an annual average of 43,400 job openings between 2019 and 2029. Job openings include openings due to net employment changes and net replacements.
For automotive service technicians and mechanics, there will be an annual average of 61,700 job openings between 2019 and 2029; for bus, truck mechanics, and diesel that average will be 24,500 job openings during the same time period. The demand for heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers (HVACR) is expected to increase by the thousands every year through 2029. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters will see 20,900 job openings between 2019 and 2029.
Unfortunately, we’re still fighting the stigma that trade schools are only for those who can’t succeed at four-year colleges, and that the trades lack the prestige of jobs that might require a four-year degree. This stigma persists despite the increasingly high degree of technical skill needed and the demand for people to work as plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians and auto technicians.
As a result, workforces in critical industries are chronically short of skilled, trained employees. There is growing consensus among some industry associations and groups that skilled trades aren’t replacing retiring workers fast enough with new blood. The American Welding Society, for example, warns that the industry will experience a shortfall of more than 375,000 welders by 2023.
This needs to change, just as the COVID pandemic has changed the landscape of work, perhaps forever. We don’t know what office jobs will come back, or how the tourism and hospitality industry will look six months from now, or the future of retail. But we do know that we will continue to need our cars maintained and repaired, that roads and buildings will still need to be built, and that all of us will need a plumber or electrician at some point.
Jobs in the skilled trades are resilient, difficult to off-shore and relatively pandemic-proof. They can also be a critical part of our economic recovery if we can encourage more young New Jerseyans to consider training for fields where there is strong demand for skilled talent. This means persuading students, parents, educators, and workers to look beyond traditional four-year degree jobs and think about the high-tech jobs in the skilled trades, where more trained, talented employees are needed.
Shawn Alexander is the president of Universal Technical Institute’s Bloomfield Campus.