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Nov. 28, 2023

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As tech jobs melt, the trades beckon. This Tacoma plumber makes $140K+

5 Photos
Tonya Miller (l), an apprentice plumber with Harts Services, takes a piece of galvanized pipe that apprentice Ricky Bui, who has been in the field longer than Miller, has just cut from beneath the kitchen sink of a Des Moines, Washington, home Wednesday, January 4, 2023. The apprentices are working to replace the old galvanized water system in the home with upgraded plastic pex water lines. (Ellen M.
Tonya Miller (l), an apprentice plumber with Harts Services, takes a piece of galvanized pipe that apprentice Ricky Bui, who has been in the field longer than Miller, has just cut from beneath the kitchen sink of a Des Moines, Washington, home Wednesday, January 4, 2023. The apprentices are working to replace the old galvanized water system in the home with upgraded plastic pex water lines. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

Meet will lane, 31, of Tacoma who never went to college.

He’s a journeyman plumber. He figures he earns $140,000 to $160,000 a year. He has plenty of work.

It turns out that you don’t need a four-year degree and massive college debt to make a very comfortable living.

High school students: The skilled trades — plumbing, electrical, carpentry, ironworking and numerous others — are beckoning.

There is another world out there besides sitting in a cubicle, staring at a screen. Especially now, the trades are a nice alternative to the shock undergoing the knowledge economy.

There were 200,000 tech company firings at some 1,000 firms last year and into February, according to the tracking site layoffs.fyi.

“Silicon Valley as we know it — with its radically transparent company cultures, empowered employees, flat hierarchies and rarefied perks like nap pods and free food — is quickly disappearing. And it’s unlikely to return,” wrote Nadia Rawlinson, the former chief people officer at Slack, the chat room used by companies in place of email, in a Jan. 19 New York Times essay.

But in the trades, it’s a different story.

Angie Hicks is the co-founder of Angie’s List — now Angi — which pairs homeowners and contractors.

Speaking by phone from her home in Indianapolis, she says, “The trades have always been insulated from the economy a bit. For most people, their individual home is their largest investment. They want to protect it. I always remind people that the housing market and home improvement market are two different things. Whether you’re buying or selling a home doesn’t mean we’re not taking care of them.”

The plumbing industry is a particularly strong example of the shortage of people in that trade, as workers are aging out.

According to DataUSA, which compiles U.S. government data, there were more than 500,000 plumbers, pipe fitters and steamfitters in the United States in 2020.

Nearly a third of them — 28% — were over age 50. At indeed.com, the job listing site, there were more than 300 recent listings for Washington state plumbing jobs, some offering up to $10,000 as a sign-up bonus.

Lane works for Harts Services, a Tacoma company that covers from Olympia to Everett, Washington.

For Lane and his wife, who works for a nonprofit, his plumbing salary has “given me the opportunity to do well in life, be able to afford to buy a new home, travel, do things we enjoy,” he says.

He’s from Australia. In high school there, says Lane, “They definitely push for the trades if you’re not interested in studying in college. There are a lot of options for work experiences, and if you don’t have contacts in the trades, they can set you up.”

It’s a different story in Seattle Public Schools, although that’s changing.

In 2020, there were nearly 15,000 high school students in the district. Only 220 were enrolled at its Skills Center trades program, which includes maritime vessel operation, auto technology, medical office assistant, construction and video game design.

That’s 1.5%.

One problem is that the classes are spread around various Seattle locations. That means students spend half a day at their regular school and have to make their way to the trades classes by bus or Rideshare.

Dan Golosman, the enthusiastic principal of the program, hopes the Skills Center eventually can be sited in one central location. For right now, he simply wants kids to know the trades opportunities are there. OK; here you go: skillscenter.seattleschools.org.

We’re paying the price for pushing high school kids to go to college, writes Matt B. Crawford in his best-seller, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.”

In a May 21, 2009, New York Times essay adapted from the book, he writes: “High school shop-class programs were widely dismantled in the 1990s as educators prepared students to become ‘knowledge workers.’ The imperative of the last 20 years to round up every warm body and send it to college, then to the cubicle, was tied to a vision of the future in which we somehow take leave of material reality and glide about in a pure information economy. This has not come to pass.”

Crawford, 57, floats between the trades and the knowledge economy. He earned a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, and is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He also once owned a motorcycle repair shop and says that for the past 10 years, he’s spent half of the day modifying an old VW bug made up of parts from various years.

In a phone interview, Crawford, who lives in the San Francisco area, says that in the trades, “There’s no ambiguity that you’re doing something useful.”

But in the knowledge economy, says Crawford, “You’re trafficking in abstractions. The standards are more amorphous. You’re never quite sure where you stand. In an office environment, it’s like walking on eggshells.”

On a recent afternoon, Lane is overseeing two plumbing apprentices in an in-house training program started by Harts. It’s the company’s way of attracting new employees.

Lane is doing the actual pipe work. The apprentices cut the drywall, sweep up. They’re watching Lane and learning. One step at a time.

For eight weeks, while getting paid, they get classroom training and hands-on learning. The company says it’ll help the apprentices prepare for the state’s plumbers exam.

Besides the exam, the state mandates that those in the trades take part in apprenticeships that can last from two to five years.

To work in just residential plumbing requires at least 6,000 hours — about three years — as an apprentice. At its “Become an Apprentice” website, the state’s Department of Labor & Industries shares everything you need to know about jobs including a machinist, butcher and dental assistant.

The initial pay for apprentices with Harts is minimal — $16 an hour. But as they pass various skill tests, the pay increases by $1 an hour, up to $20 an hour the first year. Then the pay keeps increasing — $25 an hour, $30, $35 and up — as apprenticeship hours accumulate and exams are passed.

$94,900. That was the average annual earning in 2022 for those completing apprenticeships in all the trades, averaging out lower-paid jobs such as flaggers with, say, electricians, according to the state’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board.

Tonya Miller, 42, of Lakewood is one of the apprentices assigned to Lane. On this particular day, a home in Des Moines, Washington, is being repiped because the old water pipes have been leaking.

Miller has had a varied work background: a charge nurse at a nursing home, then a traveling teacher who ended up teaching in Egypt.

She has a grown son and an 11-year-old daughter. “My auntie, my cousins are helping me. They watch my daughter,” she says about getting through the finances of her apprenticeship.

She talks about setting an example for other Black women going into the trades. “Time is on my side. It’s win-win for me.”

Meet Rachel Nelson, 35, of Granite Falls, Washington.

She’s in her fifth and final year (it’s now been changed to a four-year program) of an electrician apprenticeship in inside wiring put together by contractors and labor. (The actual name of the program is very long and not easily remembered: the Puget Sound Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, sponsored by the Puget Sound chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association and Local 46 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.)

When finished, Nelson will be qualified to do any kind of commercial, industrial or residential work.

As a journeyman — that’s the term for when she’s accumulated 8,000 hours as an apprentice, completed class work and passed a state exam — her expected annual union wages will be $110,000 to $135,000 a year.

Nelson did go the college route once.

She earned mechanical engineering and construction engineering degrees from Purdue University, then worked in the oil and gas industry, and for a general contractor.

About her career switch, she says, “I enjoy being an engineer, but it’s kind of like doing a lot of baby-sitting. A lot of what an engineer does is quality control stuff. The tradesmen install the work. The engineer comes after the fact and checks. I wanted to be hands-on.”

Nelson also remembers her engineering days, when she was talking to a carpenter apprentice. “At the end of the week, he was bringing home more money than I was with four years of college and two degrees. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’ “

As an apprentice electrician, she started off at around $24 an hour the first year, and now is at about $50 an hour. In college, she accumulated $45,000 in student loans at Purdue, and has paid them off.

Tens of thousands of Washingtonians are carrying huge college debt.

In Washington, nearly 783,000 residents held $28 billion in federal student loans in March 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Nearly half of those loans are for more than $20,000, and more than three-quarters are to people under 50, says a Sept. 21, 2022, Seattle Times story.

Not good for that FICO score.

There is a hitch for getting paid as an apprentice.

Nelson signed an “in-kind repayment,” meaning that after she completes the program, she will work for union contractors for the same amount of time she spent in the program: In her case, five years. Her union dues will be about $60 a month.

Few apprentices renege on repayment, says Ryan Bradt, training director for the electrician apprenticeship program. “They’re making too much money.”

There are hurdles to getting into the program. About 15% to 20% of applicants fail the algebra and reading and comprehension tests, Bradt says.

You also need to handle sitting in a classroom, as was the case at the Renton training center, where people were working from a textbook titled “Fundamentals of Motor Control.”

A typical page begins, “Automatically operated input devices are switches triggered by a change in a process parameter. Examples of process parameters include liquid level and pressure, fluid flows and material temperature.”

There is also the matter that some people pondering an apprenticeship have never done work building with their hands.

A free, 10-week “Construction Pre-Apprenticeship” program run by Edmonds College is headquartered in a 33,000-square-foot building at Paine Field in Everett. It also holds an aerospace manufacturing school.

During the 10 weeks of the program, the nine students in this class will build a tiny house that eventually will be transported to a village for unsheltered people. The students start out with a forklift unloading 2x4s, plywood, metal flashing, vinyl plank flooring, nails of all sorts — from hanger nails to roofing nails — from a list of 63 items.

What is a pre-apprenticeship?

Larry Cluphf, head of both programs, explains, “(Some students) may never have held a hand tool, never used a measuring tape or a square. They have not developed skills enough to get into an apprenticeship program.”

Still, employers come recruiting to these classes.

“It’s almost an emergency state right now, finding trained workers,” says Cluphf.

Chelsie Andrews, 19, of Stanwood, Washington, is one of the nine students in the most recent pre-apprenticeship class. There are five women in the group.

“I was shocked when I walked in to the classroom for the first time, and I saw multiple women. I was very happy,” she says. “A lot of women are scared to take that step. I felt I was going to feel stupid and looked down on for going into the trades.”

The trades traditionally have been male-dominated, but that’s changing.

In this state, women made up a little over a tenth, and minorities about a third, of the 22,000 people in apprenticeships last year, according to Labor & Industries. So things are improving.

Andrews remembers the first time she used a skill saw in class.

“I remember my heart was pounding. My first cut was not a straight line at all. I was nervous, staring at the line. But after the third or fourth time, I could get it pretty good,” she says.

A 2022 Stanwood High graduate, she says, “I was never strong in school. I kind of knew I would go into the trades. I just didn’t know how.”

Then she heard about the Edmonds College program, with free tuition worth $5,000 underwritten by sponsors such as Sound Transit.

Now, says Andrews, she’s confident enough in her skills that she fixed some broken stairs in her family’s home.

“It had been broken for like a year. I said, ‘What if I get the chop saw?’ It was very easy. I had always thought it was some difficult task.”

Darin Vendee, 22, is another student in the group.

After graduating in 2018 from Juanita High School in Kirkland, Washington, he says, “I had different jobs here and there.” He was a dishwasher and made pizza at a restaurant, worked for Amazon, at a bakery.

His high school counselors and family friends suggested he try the trades. Certainly, the potential for good money was an inducement.

Vendee remembers how it was at the beginning of the pre-apprenticeship.

“All the nails I tried to hammer were bent and crooked. By the second day, all the nails were pretty straight,” he says.

For Seattle public high schoolers considering the trades, Golosman gives out a 53-page booklet titled “Construction Apprenticeship Guidebook.” The annual booklet is available online at bitly.com/apprenticeshipguidebook.

It lists page after page of apprenticeships in two dozen categories. So many opportunities.

Page 7 has some striking numbers. It compares the finances of apprenticeships versus college:

Total over 4 years.

Apprenticeship: “$176,640-$291,840 earnings + benefits & pension.

College: $90,000 debt + college degree.

You could argue the figures, which are based on decade-old numbers from the state.

But the point is there: The jobs, and the money, are waiting in the trades.

As Princeton University economist Alan S. Blinder wrote in a 2005 paper, “You can’t hammer a nail over the internet, at least not yet.”

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