The Capital Region Needs More Skilled Laborers

Back Commentary Nov 2, 2015 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

Make no mistake: The Capital Region boasts some of the nation’s finest colleges and universities. Many a regional leader is a proud alum of UC Davis or Sacramento State. A great deal of value is placed on bachelor and upper-graduate degrees, and with good reason: An increasing number of professions require higher education. Yet in 2015, it might behoove us to ask some scary questions: Does a 4-year college degree guarantee a good job? If so, can that good job be reconciled with the staggering debt that currently accompanies a college diploma?

The average student debt for a bachelor’s degree is currently at $27,000 and climbing. And in the ever-evolving professional landscape, a major declared in 2015 in a field where jobs are plentiful could prove moot four to six years later if the market becomes oversaturated or the job obsolete.

Meanwhile, we’re seeing a real shortage of skilled laborers in trades like construction, which is facing a significant labor shortage as reported by the Sacramento Bee in August. Back in 2012, Forbes reported that 20.9 percent of California’s skilled laborers were between 55 and 64 years old — more than 5 percent above the national average for the overall labor force. The Public Policy Institute of California predicts that the state’s shortage of workers with 1- or 2-year technical certificates could reach 1.5 million by 2025. The institute’s study, California’s Need for Skilled Laborers, goes on to say that while in a decade 29 percent of the workforce will have the necessary skills, the share of jobs that will require them will reach 36 percent. Meanwhile local employers tell us the shortage of good, skilled tradesmen is a real problem. From basic framers and drywall installers to skilled finish carpenters, plumbers and electricians, the worker shortage may be as high as 40 percentage in our region.

Many of these fields do not require a college degree, which is good news for high school graduates not yet ready for the academic rigors of higher education: Today in California only 65 percent of those who start college will finish. Meanwhile, homebuilders like KB Home and local contractors like Rex Moore Electric will train interested high school grads, whether or not they can tell a socket wrench from an electrical socket. Even CVS has a program to train pharmaceutical assistants in CVS stores around the country, hoping they’ll go on to become full-fledged pharmacists and come back to CVS.

Remember, these are skilled trades that can pay well. Rex Moore’s president, David Moore, says often these trades have the potential to command high 5-figure or even 6-figure incomes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for an electrician in California is $54,520, while the upper 90th percentile can earn over $80,000 per year. Yet the unfair stereotype persists that trade work is for dullards or the desperate.

For decades, there’s been a stigma attached to those who failed to attend university, or tried but failed to graduate. It’s time to re-think that notion. There is real value to becoming skilled in trades essential to daily living and therefore a functioning economy. We shouldn’t just rate young people by the degree they hold but by the degree to which they measure themselves, their skills and their future.


Rick Wylie of Villara Building Systems (not verified)November 5, 2015 - 7:34am

You're right on point here, Winnie. One additional bonus for the young people that move into the trades: these jobs are much less likely to be replaced by technology (I don't think anyone yet envisions a robot installing or servicing our air conditioners or water heaters), and the jobs cannot be outsourced. In today's rapidly changing economy, that can be a very compelling benefit.