Decline of Trade Skills in The Education System

Understanding The Decline of Trade Skills in The Education System

Why Trade Skills Have Been on the Decline in the School System

If there was an educational program that would lead to greater job satisfaction, high starting salaries, and helped the country as a whole, there’s a good chance you would tell your children or students to consider it. What is this program, you ask? 

Vocational education, or trade school.

We’re all familiar with the stigma around vocational programs but rarely do we ever stop to think about why. Throughout most of the 20th century, high schools taught the trades in great detail. Unfortunately, we’ve lost most of that depth as high schoolers are led to believe college is their only option. Students today lack exposure to some of the most in-demand skills in the country right now.

To understand why trade skills have been on the decline in the education system, we’re going to look at:

  • The state of trade skills in 2021
  • The statistics of the US skilled trades shortage
  • The factors behind trade skills’ decline in the education system
  • The damaging effects of diminishing vocational education

That may seem like a mountain of problems, but don’t worry: we have a solution waiting for you at the end of this 10-minute guide. Ready? Let’s go.

What Do Trade Skills Look Like in 2021?

A skilled trade position is typically held by an employee who has been educated or trained in a particular skillset. People generally learn these skills through vocational education or training on the job, during terms that can last anywhere from a few months to four years.

Since trade skills are often so specialized, many vocational school graduates enjoy high salaries. Here are some of the highest paying skilled trade positions according to Indeed:

  • Dental hygienists ($38.10 hourly)
  • Construction managers ($84,476 annually)
  • Respiratory therapists ($35.13 hourly)
  • Boilermakers ($27.18 hourly)
  • Landscape designers ($54,862 annually)
  • Electricians ($24.83 hourly)
  • Plumbers ($24.58 hourly)
  • Home inspectors ($52,066 annually)
  • HVAC technicians ($23.25 per hour)
  • Practical nurses ($25.18 per hour)

With vocational education in such high demand, many students can enjoy these salaries just a few years into their careers. Moreover, skilled tradespeople report greater fulfillment levels than other careers, with 83% of them feeling a high level of job satisfaction.

But it isn’t all roses and cash. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the skilled trades labor shortage has only gotten worse.

Statistics About The Skilled Trades Shortage

Even before the pandemic, the United States had experienced labor shortages for people with vocational training:

  • The construction industry is facing a massive deficit of new workers. In 2017, there were only about 190,000 new construction workers, down from the three-year average of 284,000. Data suggests the industry needed around 350,000 more workers pre-pandemic but now needs approximately 430,000 post-pandemic.
  • A report from Angi, a service for finding home services, revealed that 68% of tradespeople have struggled to find skilled employees to hire, while 35% are slightly or highly understaffed.  
  • There were nearly 390,000 job postings for skilled trade workers between May and June of 2021 (50% higher than the same period last year), most of which stayed vacant for 24 days on average.
  • There are 30 million jobs in the US (with average salaries of $55,000) that do not require a bachelor’s degree.
  • Demand has skyrocketed, particularly across trades related to home services (percentages are growth in demand as determined by job postings):
    • Concrete masons: 904%
    • Window glaziers: 422%
    • House painters: 329%
    • Electricians: 130%
    • Plumbers: 129%
    • Carpenters: 121%

Let’s take a look at some skilled trades positions in terms of responsibilities, vocational education required, and salary:

Respiratory therapists

Respiratory therapists communicate with and examine patients with breathing difficulties and disorders, collaborate with physicians to build treatment plans, and perform various diagnostics and monitoring duties.

As a respiratory therapist, you’ll need some kind of degree (either from a college, university, vocational education institute, or the Armed Forces) and potentially an accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Respiratory Care. In this position, you can expect to make between $28 – $35 hourly in an industry where demand is growing by 23%.

Concrete masons

Also known as cement masons and concrete finishers, their responsibilities include placing and finishing concrete. That could mean coloring cement surfaces, making concrete structures (like beams and panels), and preventing defects from settling.

You need a high school diploma and on-the-job vocational training, like an apprenticeship, to become a concrete mason. Demand for employees is growing at around 12%, and the average masonry worker earns $19.87 hourly or a $41,330 yearly salary.


As a glazier, you process, cut, and install glass and metal frameworks. This includes cutting and fitting moldings, installing glass doors, and more general construction principles and techniques. Becoming a glazier requires a high-school diploma or equivalent, along with 4-years of vocational training through an apprenticeship program. Glaziers can expect a median salary of $41,920 per year or $20.16 an hour.

House painters

House painters have duties that include removing and replacing outlets and wall fixtures, repairing cracks with putty and primer, and applying protective materials to walls and ceilings.

Becoming a house painter does not have formal requirements, but a high school degree and 4-year apprenticeship (vocational programs) with a skilled tradesperson are recommended. For those who wish to become licensed, a technical school degree may be needed — however, requirements vary from state to state. Median hourly pay ranges around $17.84.

These are all positions with substantial salaries, high demand, and massive potential for upward mobility. So why exactly is there such a pressing labor shortage in the skilled trades? Like many problems we face in our lives, you can probably trace it back to high school.

The Decline of Trades Education in Schools

We can link the erosion of trade skills in high schools to three things:

  1. The history of the tracking system
  2. The stigma around vocational education
  3. Labor relocation

Let’s dive into each one: 

Unpacking Tracking

Today, much of high school education centers around sending students to college — but this wasn’t always the case. In the early 20th century, two key trends shaped the future of vocational education: 

  1. Industrialization created a massive demand for skilled workers. 
  2. Public high schools were receiving increasingly more immigrants, minorities, and students from rural backgrounds.

Unaccustomed to these students, high schools decided that the catch-all solution was adding vocational education alongside regular programming. Initially, it was constructed to tunnel high school students into a specific career path: welder, carpenter, etc. 

This evolved into a tracking system where high school students were separated into different streams according to their abilities. As a student, you’d either be: 

  • College-bound and aligned with traditional academic courses like writing, science, and math.
  • Or non-college-bound, where you would receive more standard courses in addition to vocational training.

However, civil rights activists soon noticed that schools disproportionately steered students from low-income families towards vocational education. Educational historians and scholars agree that one of the “benefits” of vocational training was segregating poor and minority students from upper-class ones. 


A more appropriate response would have included strategies to expose high school students to trades, disciplines, and academic fields, as we do here at Shamrck. Other countries doubled down on their programming, creating high-quality vocational high schools. 

The actual response was to refocus all students on preparing for college — and it has been that way ever since. 

Stigma Around Vocational Education

As time progressed, the stigma around vocational education grew worse. According to a study commissioned by the Edge Foundation: 

    • Most parents actively discourage their children from vocational or technical education programs, as only 27% of them consider it worthwhile.
  • Around 36% of students pursuing vocational career paths were told by their schools that pursuing an academic route would make them more successful.
  • 22% of the people in the vocational group were told they were ‘too clever’ for vocational education.

This shift towards prioritizing college-bound routes and diminishing the trades prevents countless students from pursuing vocational programs after graduating high school. US undergraduates enroll in certificate programs (which are often vocationally focused) at a rate of only 8%

Labor Relocation

The most recent nail in high school vocational ed’s coffin was outsourcing and automation. Many families have seen manufacturing jobs disappear by the millions (3.2 million, by some estimates). On top of that, frightening statistics — like McKinsey’s prediction that 45 million American jobs will be displaced by automation — lead many to believe that pursuing a skilled trade sets you up for unemployment.

Interestingly, the reverse is true: career and technical school graduates have a slightly better chance of being employed than people with academic credentials.

The decline of skilled trades in the high school education system has had impacts beyond the labor market. Now more than ever, students are facing immense financial and mental pressure from being steered towards college.

The Damaging Effects of Pressuring Kids Into College

A combination of growing social pressure and stigma has convinced high school graduates that their only option for post-secondary study is college. Unfortunately, this line of thinking plays into two massive crises facing Americans today: the student debt crisis and the mental health crisis. 

When students who are not interested in college feel forced to attend, they risk taking on unwanted debt and mental stress, two things that can impact their lives massively in the short and long term.

The Student Debt Crisis

Let’s start with some basic statistics about the American student debt crisis:

  • The total student loan debt in America is approximately $1.73 trillion. That’s more than three times the GDP of Sweden.
  • Over 40 million students owe an average of $39,351.
  • Average students at a public university will borrow $30,030 to finance their Bachelor’s degree.

For scale, student loans make up the US’s second-largest consumer debt category — they’re only beaten out by mortgage loans. And it isn’t slowing down: the student loan debt balance is growing by 23.6% annually, which is faster than the country’s GDP. The kicker? 52% of indebted students feel it was not worth it. (To help students finance their college or technical education, consider using ESSER funds).

When we pressure high school graduates to choose college regardless of what they want for themselves, we risk setting them up with thousands of dollars of debt. For many Americans, this debt stays a constant fixture well into adult life: 53% of millennials have not purchased a home because of student loans.

Vocational education has the potential to save countless high school graduates from meeting the same fate. For one, most apprenticeships pay students during training — that means students could make money during their studies and graduate debt-free. In addition, skilled tradespeople tend to earn higher starting salaries right out of their training: for example, electricians and HVAC technicians can earn more than $65,000 as newcomers.

The Student Mental Health Crisis 

College is ground zero for student mental health problems. Here are some more figures detailing the current state of play on campuses:

  • A quarter of all young adults 18 to 25 have diagnosable mental illnesses.
  • Over 11% of college students have been treated for anxiety in the past year.
  • Over 80% of students feel overwhelmed by their academic responsibilities.
  • Students cite anxiety and depression as some of the top barriers to their academic performance.
  • The second leading cause of death among young adults is suicide.

College can be a stressful experience for anyone — for many high school graduates, it entails a new environment, greater workload, and culture shock. When you compound that on top of students who would rather not be there in the first place, it puts young people at risk of severe mental health issues.

On the other hand, graduates of vocational education programs are more likely to report greater happiness with their experiences than academic degree holders. With less social pressure on students to stick to traditional academic pathways, they have room to focus on what they enjoy. 

The idea here is not to steer all high school graduates away from college — it’s to allow them to choose where they want to take their lives. A college-bound student who wants to pursue academia will likely enjoy their time on campus. A student who would rather learn to weld would be miserable. 

We need to stop setting up our children for debt, depression, and failure. You must listen to the younger people in your lives and help them along their journey by exposing them to different careers, trades, and disciplines. 

Help Your Children & Students Discover Who They Want To Be

Information is one of the most significant barriers preventing students from pursuing vocational education (or whichever kind of post-secondary pathway they prefer). Simply put, most young people do not know what they want to do because they’re unaware of their choices.

Here at Shamrck, we recognize that every student has a different path. That’s why we show students all their options:

  • Going to college
  • Joining the military
  • Entering the job market directly
  • Finding an apprenticeship or vocational education
  • Starting a business

Our goal is to equip them with the tools they need to excel in their education and find what works for them. We provide educational content and notes on various topics, a list of resources on local opportunities and clubs, and information on job and volunteer postings. 

Shamrck helps match students to careers based on their interests and skills. For the ones who want to dive deeper, we also offer mentorships and Q&A programs. Whether your students or children want homework help or industry insights — anything is fair game. Through Shamrck, we want to expose students to the wide variety of career options available to them — that way, they can avoid the unneeded debt and worry that comes with pursuing a field they’re not passionate about.

We want to provide your kids with an all-in-one platform where they can learn, ask questions, and grow. Interested? Register for Shamrck today!

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the disadvantages of vocational education?

Vocational educations are very domain or industry-specific, especially when compared to college degrees. Someone with a business degree could likely find work in any corporate environment and industry; in contrast, a skilled welder would need to stick to welding.

Vocation school graduates are also less competitive against college graduates should the two ever compete for the same job (an unlikely occurrence). The stigma associated with trade schools, while unfounded and inaccurate, is still harmful. Finally, trade schools can be even more expensive than college since training is hard to do at scale.

Why do we need more trade schools?

The skilled trade labor shortage in the United States is only getting worse: the country needs skilled workers now. As well, greater investment in trade schools could signal a destigmatization of trades, allowing more high school students to pursue an education that they truly feel passionate about.

What is a trade level of education?

Skilled trades are typically taught via trade schools, vocational schools, community colleges, and apprenticeships. Most trades do not require a Bachelor’s degree, but some require accreditation from an independent organization or an associate’s degree. To get a vocational education, students usually need a high school diploma (or equivalent).

Why are trade skills important?

Trade skills encompass a series of several essential services that will forever be in demand. The construction, maintenance, and improvement of our homes, cars, and offices all rely on the services and expertise of skilled tradespeople.

Go to the Shamrck Dashboard today for a personalized career plan and access to local opportunities that will help set you on the path for success.

Why Career Readiness is Important

Understand How Career Readiness Helps You Succeed in the Job MarketThere are more people applying for jobs than ever before and many jobs are becoming obsolete at a fast pace. These two factors combined have created an increase in job competition. The only way that...

read more

Internships, Apprenticeships, and Full-Time Work

Weigh Your Options and Decide Which is Best for YouThere are many different options available when it comes to choosing a career path. Do you want to gain more skills before you graduate? Are you looking for practical experience in your field of study? Possibilities...

read more