by Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
My wife and I live in “the projects.” That’s how I refer to our 18th century farmhouse; a lovely property but one that requires near-constant maintenance and remodeling. This home has sheltered nine generations of my family, and I joke that the smart ones moved away. I got stuck with this labor of love.
Our contractor is finishing up the last of our roofing projects. Over the past ten years he’s re-roofed the other sections of the house, as well as our barn and garage. We saved the kitchen section for last. It was the most challenging due to the unusual way my relatives built the structure. The post-and-beam construction has held up for 200 years, but the back wall is out of plumb more than a foot and the sag in the middle made the roof look a bit like a hammock. Few local contractors were willing to touch it, but ours came up with a solid and affordable plan. I wish we could keep this young man on retainer.
Unfortunately for us, his services are in-demand. And why not? He’s able, reliable, and affordable. The main limiting factor to growing his business is the difficulty he’s had hiring and retaining good employees. He told me that he started last summer with six new hires, but none of them lasted. Some were unable to do the work; some unwilling to work. Some showed up drunk or high; after a while some failed to show up at all.
I thought about his employee experience while reading an article in the June issue of Business NH Magazine. Written by Ray Carbone, “Construction Trades Struggle to Draw Next Gen Workers” lays out the case that as a state we are failing to provide young people with the skills they need to start a career that could quickly put themselves on a path toward self-sufficiency. (Another article in the same edition showed, from 2005-2015, a 10 percent decrease in the number of Millennials living independently, balanced by a 9 percent increase in those living with their parents and 1 percent living with roommates.)
The movie The Graduate turns 50 this year, and with it one of the most well-known pieces of advice to a graduate: “Plastics.” Back then, that advice to Dustin Hoffman’s Ben Braddock was seen as representing everything artificial and soul-crushing about the modern working world. This year, Bill Gates provided his career advice to new graduates: artificial intelligence. For some, getting into a field that will ultimately displace millions of workers will be lucrative and fulfilling. It will also be limiting, not just because it will be open only to those with high academic abilities, but also because most of those jobs will be concentrated in larger urban areas.
What about those with average academics who want to live in our state’s more suburban/rural mix? My advice for high school graduates is: the trades. I say this as a former white-collar worker who now owns a trade-skill franchise. I’m my own boss and my only employee, which was one of the requirements I gave to the franchise broker who helped me find this business. I didn’t want the headaches that come with employees, headaches that my contractor friend knows all too well.
In his article, Mr. Carbone describes the struggles those in the trades are having to attract workers, despite solid pay and on-the-job training. The trades suffer from a lack of status in a labor market more attuned to “sexy” high tech. Few young people are exposed to the joys of building things, either at home or in school. Millennials prefer virtual reality to reality in their leisure activities. But even with all those news stories about mounting college loan debt, high drop-out rates, and the number of new graduates not finding jobs in their degree field, our high schools are not offering the vocational education and training programs they used to.
The focus on STEM in our high schools should not come at the expense of the trades. A good tradesman can earn enough to raise a family in New Hampshire, and won’t start off under the burden of college loans. If we truly want to attract and retain young workers, we should teach the virtues of blue-collar career fields, targeting potential candidates in middle and high school with curricula aligned to certification programs in fields like construction, plumbing, electrical, and HVAC.
Since many people in the trades are self-employed or work for small businesses, we must also make it easier to start and operate a small business in this state. With our Republican governor and majorities in the legislature, there is no reason why New Hampshire couldn’t be the most small-business-friendly state in the nation.
Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org