3 Key Reasons Counselors Need to Explore Skilled Trades with Their Students

By JP Michel

When considering life after high school, most students are focused on one thing: attending a four-year college and getting a degree. This is not surprising, as most of them have been groomed to achieve academically and have not been encouraged to consider other options, like the skilled trades. In fact, more often than not, these students have been encouraged to look at the trades as a ‘fallback’ option.

High school counselors know that this mindset needs to change, as the skilled trades offer valuable careers with bountiful opportunities (Wilson, 2015). In a marketplace full of changes (Dizik, 2017), the skilled trades remain an interesting, rewarding option for millions of students. Despite knowing this, it can be hard to convince students, parents and sometimes ourselves of the true value of a skilled trades careers (Reynolds, 2016). In this article, we explore three reasons why counselors should help students give more consideration to the skilled trades.

1. Skilled trades are a great fit for many young people.
There are many young people that enjoy hands-on, practical work that leverages their curiosity and creativity (Michel, 2016). This may be because they have an underlying ability that is utilized in this type of work. For example, they could have a natural ability related to visual perception, dexterity or spatial relations. These students might enjoy using their abilities in welding or plumbing professions. When students find work that aligns with their strengths and motivations (Olson, 2015), they are able to make their highest contribution. The sense of accomplishment students get from this type of contribution is a powerful predictor of work satisfaction. The skilled trades offer specific opportunities for practical work, and since some students enjoy and are skilled at this type of work, we need to encourage them to discover these opportunities.

2. Skilled trades offer engaging learning experiences
Skilled trades education makes learning applicable through apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are training systems, which combine on-the-job training and accompanying study, often leading to a professional designation. For example, heavy machine operators doing an apprenticeship to drive excavators receive 2,260 hours of on-the-job training in addition to 240 hours of in-class technical training. Once they complete these requirements, they receive their official Certificate of Apprenticeship and they are certified as a journeyperson in the trade.

There are several benefits to this approach. First, “learning by doing” is one of the most effective ways to learn and retain new information. Second, it gives students immediate experience in their fields. Third, the unique apprenticeships offered to the trades serve as a realistic job preview, which gives students insights into what the job is really like. These kinds of experiences allow students the opportunity to ‘try before they buy’ into a job and work culture, that takes a serious time and financial investment.

Other unique features of skilled trades education become evident when it is compared to a traditional college education. For example, when compared to college students, students in the skilled trades are more likely complete their training in fewer years, pay less tuition and are more likely to earn income during their studies.

3. There is a tremendous need for skilled trades work
There are many workplaces that need skilled trades workers. This is why those with career and technical education are more likely to be employed and are 21% more likely to be working in their fields of study when compared to those with academic credentials, according to the U.S. Department of Education (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2016).

Skilled trade workers are also well paid. For example, at California Steel Industries, a steel processing and finishing company, some supervisors without college degrees make as much as $120,000 per year and even electricians can make six figures. The United States has over 30 million jobs that pay an average of $55,000 per year and do not require a bachelor’s degree, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education & the Workforce.

The opportunities in the trades are so numerous that many are predicting labor shortages (Wilson, 2015). For example, the U.S. Department of Education reports that there will be 68 percent more job openings in infrastructure-related fields in the next five years than there are people training to fill them. Likewise, almost 300,000 jobs for electricians will become available in the U.S. over the next decade.

To fill these gaps, state governments are making efforts to encourage young people to work in a skilled trade. California is spending $6 million on a campaign to revive the reputation of vocational education, and $200 million to improve the delivery of it.

Counselors Can Showcase All Available Options

Many high school students believe that they should attend a four-year college and get a degree. This mindset has prevented many students from exploring other interesting options in the skilled trades. In recent years, the trades have taken a backseat to more academic pursuits.

This is a mindset worth challenging. Since skilled trades offer lucrative careers with a wide variety of opportunities, we need to get more students interested and engaged. As counselors, what do we need to do to change the conversation? Use the resources and interventions available, such as the Skilled Trade Cards, a hands-on tool that sparks the exploration process through interactive activities. You can learn more about the Trade Cards here: https://mysparkpath.com/collections/all/products/single-trades-card-deck

What other reasons and resources to explore the skilled trades would you add to our list? Insert your comments below.


Clagget, M. (2019). Advancing CTE in state and local career pathways. Retrieved from http://cte.ed.gov/initiatives/advancing-cte-in-state-and-local-career-pathways-system

Dizik, A. (2017). The next generation of jobs won’t be made up of professions. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170424-the-next-generation-of-jobs-wont-be-made-up-of-professions

Michel, J.P. (2017). Rethinking career development for youth: Focus on challenges and opportunities. Retrieved from http://www.careerconvergence.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/142263/_self/CC_layout_details/false

National Center for Educational Statistics. (2016). Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/ctes/figures/fig_2016107-2.asp

Olson, J. (2015). Beyond college readiness: Expanding career opportunities for students in the construction industries. Retrieved from http://www.careerconvergence.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/109470/_self/CC_layout_details/false

Reynolds, A. (2016). Collaborative field trips to promote manufacturing careers. Retrieved from http://www.careerconvergence.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/117361/_self/CC_layout_details/false

Wilson, M. (2015). Skilled worker shortage: A unique opportunity for career counselors. Retrieved from http://www.careerconvergence.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/113603/_self/CC_layout_details/false


J.P. Michel JP Michel is a career and leadership coach who specializes in preparing youth for the future of careers. He has a B.A in Psychology from the University of Ottawa and an M.Sc. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Manchester. His work on careers has been featured on BBC.com and CBC radio. To learn more about his work, please visit www.mysparkpath.com or email him at jp@mysparkpath.com


Printer-Friendly Version


Larry Robbin   on Sunday 03/03/2019 at 04:12 PM

Thanks for this important article. I often feel that the career counseling field has a white collar bias about jobs. The other reasons to consider these jobs include the fact that in a four year skilled trades apprenticeship, the average earnings are $250,000! Also many of the skilled trades are a great starting point for starting a business. One problem is the skilled trades are overwhelmingly male. According to the Department of Labor only 6% of people in the skilled trades are women! This website is a great resource to help deal with this problem.

JP Michel   on Sunday 03/03/2019 at 09:28 PM

Hi Larry, thank you for that. I acknowledge the potential bias, especially since the job of career counsellor would be considered 'white collar' itself. At the same time, I've met so many incredible counsellors over the years who are quite motivated in getting more people in the skilled trades. So let's keep fighting the good fight!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.