The demand for workers in the skilled trades is high with open positions going unfilled, according to the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a trade association that represents the non-union construction industry. ABC notes the sector had more than 400,000 available jobs at the end of October.
With members of the current workforce preparing for retirement, igniting the interest of young people in skilled trades careers is a challenge.
Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, a nonprofit, is working to “increase understanding, support, and investment in skilled trades education in U.S. public high schools.”
‘Really exciting and critical moment’
“We feel like we are at a really exciting and critical moment,” says Danny Corwin, executive director, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “The career pathways that are needed for young people to be successful and to have opportunities and options are becoming more of a central conversation piece in K-12 education.”
Corwin adds, “I think public sentiment, education circles, industry – there’s as high a level of support and buy-in as we’ve seen for the past two decades.”
Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is a program of The Smidt Foundation, the private philanthropy created by Eric Smidt, owner and founder of national tool retailer Harbor Freight. The mission of Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is to increase understanding, support and investment in skilled trades education in U.S. public high schools.
To support the teaching of skilled trades education in public schools, Harbor Freight Tools for Schools awarded $1.5 million this year to 25 schools.
Educators who “love the subject matter, students, and their possibilities” are considered when making the awards. Also considered – teachers of skilled trades programs that result in all students not only receiving a high school diploma but an industry-recognized credential when they graduate.
“It came out of an attempt to recognize, honor, and draw attention to public high school skilled trades teachers who are often kind of isolated within their own school buildings and in their school districts. This is the kind of group of teachers that, over the decades, hasn’t been spotlighted,” explains Corwin.
“Harbor Freight Tools for Schools’ thinking at the time, ‘How can we be a spark to draw more attention to this important sector and ideally help it grow with quality?’”
To date, Corwin counts more than 133 prize winners of more than $7 million in 40 states in the seven years that prizes have been awarded.
Inspiring future plumbers
Alvarez’s passion for the trade is reflected in his personal story. He comes from a family of plumbers and says his older brothers tried to discourage him from taking up the occupation, but he explains that he loves working with his hands.
At 21, Alvarez became a plumber and began working at the University of Texas at San Antonio which largely helped fund his bachelor’s degree. Now, as a teacher, he’s inspiring students to consider the trade pathway.
“I learned very quickly that to keep kids engaged, especially in high school, it starts with developing a positive rapport with them. Really showing them love and creating a trusting environment for them to come in, and in a safe environment for them to learn,” says Alvarez.
He says a big part of his job is erasing negative perceptions of the plumbing industry. “For a high school kid, when they think of plumbing, the first thing that comes to mind is, obviously, the toilet and everything that is associated with that toilet.”
Alvarez continues, “One of my first groups, my sophomore group, I avoid that. I introduce them to the tools that we use to run water lines in the walls, the tools that we use to cut pipe, and the tankless water heaters that are out there, the water softening devices that we have that remove the hardness from water and create better water for us.”
He says while introducing the different plumbing roles, salaries are of interest, especially when students learn there’s a strong demand for plumbers.
“I break it down for them. I say, ‘Listen, if you guys stay on this path by the time that you are 22 years old, you can potentially be a master plumber, and own and operate your own plumbing company, be your own boss, and schedule your own work. Have your own customers.”
The master plumber is the highest level in the plumbing trade with an estimated pay range between $74,000 and $125,000, according to Glassdoor.
To reach that level, plumbers enter apprenticeships to obtain their licenses and gain the required hours of experience. Alvarez explains that students at his school register for apprenticeships when they turn 16 years old and graduate from high school with a plumber’s helper certificate. He notes that some do internships before they graduate.
From high school to apprenticeship
Nineteen-year-old Garrett Hermes didn’t know what he wanted to do after high school, but he told his parents he didn’t want to attend college. “I communicated with them that there was nothing in life that I really wanted to do that required a degree so they were all for me not having to put myself in college debt for a degree that I probably wouldn’t use,” says Hermes.
After attending Alvarez’s classes, Hermes decided to pursue plumbing. He graduated in June of 2023 and is now a plumber apprentice. “Being able to work, it feels amazing. Seeing where I was in high school, especially because that’s where plumbing started for me to now, I can see it’s a night and day difference and I still have a lot more to learn.”
He plans on obtaining a plumbing license but also aspires to one day becoming a police officer. Asked what he would tell other high school students unsure about a career. “I think it’s a really good option if you don’t feel like college is for you, to put your four years in the trade and just get that license,” says Hermes. Beyond technical skills, he says apprentices can also obtain key soft skills.
‘Our security depends on these kids’
Solving problems is at the heart of the engineering, robotics, and mechatronics program led by Demetrius Wilson, at the Oakland Schools Technical Campus Northeast in Pontiac, Michigan –where he’s been a teacher for more than 30 years.
Wilson won a $50,000 Harbor Freight Tools for Schools Prize for Teaching Excellence in 2020.
Career paths for his students range from mechanical engineering, electrical and mechatronics engineers, linesmen to CAD (computer-aided design) designers and PLC (programmable logic controller) programmers. Students are also provided the opportunity to pursue a dual path and earn a high school diploma while also obtaining an associate degree.
“It is life-changing for these kids and it’s necessary for us, this country. Our security depends on these kids,” says Wilson.
“We don’t have enough students or people in the pipeline to fill these career opportunities, what are we going to do? How are we going to keep this country moving forward if these young people are not taking programs such as this? We have to bring awareness to these young people, these wonderful opportunities.”
He notes that two of his alumni founded a successful national company and come back to the program to share their story with Wilson’s students.
Since Wilson is the only teacher left in the program that used to have five, he’s come up with a system using Google Classroom to reach all his students pursuing different interests at the same time during their daily two-and-a-half-hour class. With his prize funds, Wilson was able to purchase new equipment for the program.
Building community for skilled trades teachers
The award enables teachers like Wilson and Alvarez to be part of a community of other prize winners who meet each summer to brainstorm and network in a Harbor Freight Tools for Schools program called Let’s Build It.
“Our goals for those convenings are very specific – to allow them to learn and share creative ideas that can highlight the value of skilled trades education and, ultimately, have a ripple effect to promote excellence in this work nationally,” explains Corwin.
He says small grants are awarded for ideas developed during the meeting. One example – a camp created in Sunrise, Wyoming for students of prize-winning skilled trades programs who use their skills to restore the oldest YMCA in the state.
Another example – an Alabama teacher who teaches students how to use 3D printers to make prosthetics for amputees in Third World countries. He shared his work and now has several teachers from around the country contributing to the project by making parts of the prosthetics. “It just brings learning to life in such a meaningful, impactful way,” notes Corwin.
Wilson of Pontiac, Michigan plans to attend the next prize winner alumni session and values the opportunity to keep learning. “You get the chance to actually rub shoulders with some of the brightest minds in the nation. How can you not walk away being a better person? Sharing practices, building a network. ‘Hey, what are you doing over here? Oh, that’s cool. Hey, let me get your number.’ Those connections are priceless.”