It is a great time to start a career working as a skilled tradesperson. Nearly all trades are currently facing a skilled labor shortage, and as a result, competition for strong workers is fierce. While some young professionals have been hesitant to embrace “blue collar work” in recent years, these days, landing a job as a skilled tradesperson means starting a lucrative, respectable and increasingly sophisticated career. If you know what to expect and how to prepare when starting your journey, you will be well-positioned to succeed in a skilled trade, no matter what area of specialization you pursue.
Pay for skilled tradespeople has been on the rise, with credentialed professionals routinely making high annual incomes and receiving full benefits and a pension upon retirement, which is increasingly difficult to find elsewhere. Depending on that person’s path to entering their trade, they may manage to avoid acquiring any substantial debt in the process.
Pick the Right Education Path for You
There is a variety of pathways to becoming a skilled tradesperson, such as an electrician or HVAC technician. The most common starting point is enrollment in a vocational program offered by a trade technical school, community college, university or other educational institution. In these programs, you learn the basic skills and knowledge required to pursue your trade of choice. Other starting points include military technical training, government-run adult education centers and four-year colleges.
While technical institutions tend to focus on teaching practical skills and knowledge needed for a trade, colleges/universities tend to be a path best reserved for learning the theory needed for construction-related positions such as engineering, architectural planning or construction management. Unless you are seeking one of those specialized positions, or a managerial or planning position requiring more business knowledge, a vocational program is generally a fine starting point.
Beyond classroom education, you will likely want to pursue an apprenticeship, which is typically offered through a trade union or another industry group. These programs are designed to give you the on-the-job training and licensure to practice in regulated professional fields. While apprenticeships often come with a cost attached, many employers are willing to pay for the training for committed employees, as these apprenticeships are crucial for developing skills and credentials that make employees most valuable to their employers. Even if you do need to front some money for training or tools, it is typically well worth it given the pay increase that comes after completion of an apprenticeship.
Determine What Sort of Job You Want
Finding a job you will love in a skilled trade requires thinking further than, “I want to go the electrical route,” for example. Do you want to be a residential electrician working for a small, local company? Do you want to work for a large, regional or national company doing commercial electrical work in new building construction? Do you want to be a lineman for a utility company? These are all electrical roles, but their day-to-day realities vary drastically. Consider factors like your ideal company size, the extent to which you want to work face-to-face with customers, how you feel about being in unheated/uncooled environments and whether you are willing to learn extra skills to expand your opportunities, like how to interface effectively with integrated electrical/data-comm wiring—such as the power over Ethernet (PoE) connections that now interface with many LEDs—or smart home/building automation technology.
Learn Necessary Hard and Soft Skills
Working as a skilled tradesperson requires a mix of technical knowledge, practical knowledge related to conducting a physical job and soft skills that are valuable in nearly any position.
- Technical knowledge: This will vary depending on your field and desired position, but examples include learning the fundamentals of electricity and applicable electrical codes as an electrician or learning the theory behind refrigeration as an HVAC contractor.
- Practical knowledge: You will be doing a lot of hands-on work as a contractor, so you will need to know the best way to do things like bend conduit, run wire or pipe efficiently and many other best practices related to your day-to-day job.
- Soft skills: Following direction is the most important skill any junior tradesperson can possess. Be a problem-solver, never be afraid to ask for help or advice (especially early in your career), and develop your “people skills” to work effectively with customers.
Prepare Well to Ace the Interview
There’s more that goes into getting a great job in a skilled trade than dressing nicely and having a résumé showcasing the right experiential background, as important as these things are. When you head into an interview, you should also:
- Know the company, the role and (if possible) the interviewer. Employers want someone who has done their homework, so show that you know a bit about them and their company. A little bit of research ahead of time can make a big difference in how you are perceived.
- Know your strengths and what you want. Be confident that the job you interview for is right for you based on your skills, personality and goals, then explain why you are a fit. This is partially about making a case for yourself and partially about showcasing that you are committed.
- Know you have to pass a drug test. This may seem strange to include, but recruiters often lament the fact that their candidates can’t pass a drug test, regardless of their qualifications. Remember that “legal in my state” does not mean “aligned with company policy.”
Do What It Takes to Stand Out
Whether you find employment right away or not, being willing to take extra steps to further your knowledge and show your commitment to your trade can help you rise above your peers. Seek out continuing education, such as seminars on code revisions that community colleges and other institutions offer. This is not only good for increasing your practical knowledge but is a good networking opportunity as a young professional, and it shows that you are invested in your career. It could land you a new job or it could help you find a mentor—another valuable resource for someone starting out in a skilled trade. It is not always practical to job-shadow experienced professionals due to the danger that comes with some trade jobs, but befriending an industry veteran helps you learn the most efficient, effective ways to do your job.
Consider also seeking out online resources from product manufacturers and industry trade groups. Also look into forums and blogs where trade professionals discuss projects, or social media communities dedicated to sharing best (and worst) practices. Whether you pursue self-education or find a great mentor, you will be glad you did when your job becomes easier or you are rewarded for your performance.
Don’t Give Up!
When you first start out in a trade, you will likely do a lot of menial tasks as you learn the basics and earn your employer’s trust. Do not let this discourage you, as many new tradespeople who are deterred by redundant work or relatively small up-front salaries later wish they had toughed it out through the early phase of what would turn out to be a high-paying career requiring minimal accruing of debt. Your skill set will remain in high demand, so if you do your research up front, know what you want, are willing to put in the time to learn your trade well and are persistent, you have a bright future ahead of you.