COVID-19 Causes Ongoing Skilled Trades Shortage

Lyss Welding
Lyss Welding
November 5, 2021

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A PeopleReady analysis on skilled trades job openings revealed almost 400,000 new skilled labor job postings leading up to summer's construction season. That's a boost compared to pre-pandemic job numbers.

However, despite the pressing need for trades workers, there's a skilled trades shortage as companies struggle to find and retain employees.

Many jobs in the skilled trades require less formal schooling and can be attractive to anyone looking to earn money while doing fulfilling work. The trades also offer opportunities to move up within manufacturing and construction or start your own business.

Read on to learn about how COVID-19 forced the trades to change and where the most opportunities lie.

Why Are Skilled Trades Workers In Demand?

Many Americans started renovation projects during the pandemic to make their homes more comfortable as they spend more time there. James Upton — tile installer, renovator, and DIY blogger with a 30-year tenure in the industry — said the demand is so high, he's no longer taking on new projects. He's booked a year out.

"Normally, when recessions hit, the trades get hit," said Upton. "But this one, we really didn't get hit at all."

The pandemic exacerbated the skilled trades shortage, but it isn't new. It follows a trend of an aging workforce and industry education that's largely been pushed to the side in middle schools, high schools, and higher ed.

The aging workforce

According to the Manufacturing Institute, the manufacturing labor force was older and aging faster than the rest of the workforce, even before the pandemic. This suggests that many people are aging out of the trades, but fewer are replacing them.

Informally, Upton found by polling his community of tiling pros that the vast majority of them had worked in the industry for over 20 years.

Deprioritizing trades education

Vocational education has existed for more than a century and is trending toward more advanced technology. But people entering the workforce aren’t always exposed to the value of a skilled trades education.

Will LaRue is a business development officer at metal manufacturer TFC, Inc. and one of the relatively rare Gen-Z-ers in manufacturing. He had a wake-up call on a business trip when he looked around and realized he was the youngest person in the room — by far.

"The next youngest person was 45, and after that, 60," LaRue said. "It kind of dawned on me that there’s no exposure. I hardly ever see anyone at colleges, universities, or high schools."

LaRue makes it his mission to be visible at job fairs and career fairs, to share terminology about the trades with students who don’t otherwise get exposure.

The Pandemic Forced Employers to Change Their Cultures

Forward-thinking employers are adapting to the societal changes that have resulted from the pandemic and making cultural changes to appeal to a workforce of millennials and Gen-Z.

In a FABTECH conference presentation on recruiting younger generations to the workforce, LaRue shared that these younger generations tend to be more mobile, they're less attracted to hierarchy and more interested in authenticity from their employers. They value education, and they're driven to achieve.

Here are some ways that employers in the trades are starting to shift their approach to meet employees' modern expectations.

Allowing for greater flexibility

A Mercer Talent Trends study found that in 2018, more than half of manufacturing employees desired to have more flexibility in their job. But less than one in 10 HR leaders said flexibility was visible in their company.

In light of the pandemic, that may be changing. For example, LaRue’s company instituted a compressed workweek, so workers get four-day weekends. Other examples of flexibility include flexible PTO policies and split shifts.

Providing training and advancement opportunities

"Every young recruit I’ve talked to wants to know exactly how they can advance. And if you can’t communicate how they are going to advance, they aren’t interested." LaRue explained, "Because they are choosing going to work versus college and other options they have."

Even if a company can’t offer immediate promotion, forward-thinking companies are finding ways to cross-train their employees, such as offering free training in robotics. Through cross-training, employees can diversify their skill sets, feel more accomplished at their job, and prepare for the future of the trades.

Promoting a more diverse workforce

As it stands, jobs in the skilled trades don’t represent the diversity of the country. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 59% of active federal trades apprentices self-identified as white, 26% Hispanic, almost 10% as Black or African American, and under 2% as Asian. Just 9% were women.

Some industry trade associations are directing funds and starting programs aiming to recruit more women into the trades workforce, but there is much more work to be done.

LaRue pointed out that people with disabilities have also been overlooked for trades jobs, but that hasn’t stopped his company from hiring and training employees who are deaf.

LaRue’s company, the Precision Metal Forming Association, and other organizations train people with employment barriers such as felony convictions to learn valuable trade skills and get good-paying jobs.

Increasing pay

Increasing pay is easier said than done for employers struggling with lean teams and a strained supply chain. They also feel responsible for paying their loyal employees fairly if newcomers are making sign-on bonuses.

Even so, Upton has a sense that wages will rise in the skilled trades. He said, "The wages have already gone up quite a bit, and I think they’re going up more."

You Can Help Fill the Skilled Trades Shortage

Now more than ever, career switchers, high school grads, and people new to the workforce have a massive opportunity to get their foot in the door at a company where they could move up in quality control or management.

"The labor market is ridiculous," said LaRue, "We're hiring whoever we can get in the door."

Upton's message to anyone considering the trades as a career? "It's something you can learn and you can make a decent wage as you learn, and you're not saddled with debt after learning it."

If you're thinking about trade school, consider some of the benefits of trade school versus college.

Most In-Demand Jobs for Skilled Trades

We used job posting data from the PeopleReady analysis and salary information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics to list the most in-demand jobs in the skilled trades.

Concrete masons

Concrete masons work in what's called hardscape. They sculpt, shape, smooth, texturize and design the concrete in and around buildings.

  • Average salary: $49,390
  • Growth in job postings compared to before the pandemic: 904%
Window glaziers

Glaziers install and repair architectural glass, windows, and glass doors. They typically learn their trade through apprenticeships. Like all of the trades, glasswork is becoming more technologically advanced. Today, windows use different materials and technologies to diffuse light in specific ways.

  • Average salary: $50,970
  • Growth in job postings: 422%
Painters for residential construction

Painters apply expert touches to paint and coat walls. They need attention to detail, balance, hand-eye coordination, and the ability to work together closely with other pros.

  • Average salary: $46,460
  • Growth in job postings: 329%
Electricians

So much of daily life relies on electricity, making electrical professionals a crucial role. In addition, the BLS predicts that alternative power sources — like solar and wind — will need more electricians to hook up homes with these sources of energy.

  • Average salary: $61,550
  • Growth in job postings: 130%
Plumbers

Plumbers work with water systems. They repair problems in piping and install new systems. You can earn money while you learn to become a plumber in an apprenticeship program then advance your career to become a journey-level or master plumber.

  • Average salary: $61,100
  • Growth in job postings: 129%
Carpenters

Carpenters work in homes and commercial buildings, creating and installing structures made of wood and other materials — from staircases to door thresholds. They frequently train for their job through a paid apprenticeship.

  • Average salary: $54,200
  • Growth in job postings: 121%

Other Trades In Demand Right Now

Construction jobs aren't the only trades in demand right now. Jobs in health care, medicine, and wellness are also booming. Here are a few more in-demand trades.

Massage therapist

You can become a licensed massage therapist with a certificate or diploma and be your own boss or work for a health services provider.

  • Average salary: $47,350
  • Projected job growth by 2030: 32%
Medical assistant

Medical assistants provide clinical and administrative support in medical settings. They serve an essential role in communicating with patients and making sure health records are up to date.

  • Average salary: $36,930
  • Projected job growth by 2030: 18%
Physical therapist aide

Physical therapists rely on aides and assistants to help patients through treatment plans. You can become a physical therapist aide without a college degree. Then, you can earn your associate degree to become a physical therapist assistant.

  • Average salary: $59,440
  • Projected job growth by 2030: 32%

Meet the Experts

LaRue is the business development officer of TFC Inc., a metal manufacturing company in North Little Rock, Arkansas. There, he oversees an extensive list of operations within the company, including HR, sales, efficiency, internet and tech, purchasing, creative processes, engineering, customer services, and more.

James Upton is a tile installer-turned-bathroom renovator living in the Pacific Northwest. His background includes working in construction and remodeling for more than 30 years and focusing on tile since 1996. In 2012 he started blogging tile installation advice. Today, he runs DIYTileGuy, a resource for the DIY community to provide tips, methods, and information.

Lyss Welding
Lyss Welding
Contributing Writer

Lyss Welding is a staff writer who covers career and education topics for Become with Lantern. Since graduating from the University of Chicago with a bachelor's degree in linguistics, Lyss has worked in 21st century skills programs and for companies writing curriculum and training resources for students and job seekers. Her writing has also appeared on Best Value Schools and Grad School Hub.

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