Here is a question more high school students may want to ask when considering what type of career they would like to pursue when they graduate.
What takes just as long to earn as a college degree, but pays students while they learn and never charges tuition?
It is a trade union school, a fact I learned during a recent forum on trade unions’ efforts to recruit more women and minorities into their ranks.
According to Jason Fincke, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania, which represents all building trade unions in Western Pennsylvania, trade union schools do not charge tuition, regardless of whether the applicant wants to be a carpenter, electrician or any other skilled trade worker.
There are several state-of-the-art trade union schools in the Pittsburgh area, including one run by the carpenter’s union in Robinson Township and one operated by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on Pittsburgh’s South Side.
While trade union representatives acknowledged they would like more women and minorities in their ranks, anyone can apply to be accepted after passing an aptitude test and an interview with trade school personnel.
The requirements for application aren’t onerous: Be at least 18 years old; have a high school diploma or GED; have a Pennsylvania driver’s license; have suitable transportation; and be drug-free.
There is one other requirement – attendance – that interviewers at the trades say is a big clue as to whether someone will show up on time at a job site.
Fincke also recommended that guidance counselors encourage more students to consider their school districts’ career and technology schools as a way to explore skills.
No, learning a skilled trade isn’t for everyone, but the Feb. 10 seminar sponsored by state Rep. Brandon Neuman and state Sen. Tim Solobay was part of a continuing effort to encourage area high schools and their guidance counselors to ensure that students are at least considering skilled trades as an option when they graduate.
Aside from periodic classroom work, apprentices in trade unions spend most of their time working on the job alongside journeymen.
After they reach a certain level of competence, they return to the trade school for more classroom work, then it is back out to a work site to apply the newly learned skills, again under a journeyman’s supervision.
Depending upon the trade, this process continues for three to five years, until the apprentice earns a journeyman’s rank.
Do not get me wrong. I am not opposed to students wanting to go to college. We will always need good teachers, engineers, geologists and others who will need a college degree.
But we are doing a disservice to students who may possess skills that require other kinds of training, that upon completion can provide them with good earnings with trades that are highly valued by contractors and demanded by businesses and consumers alike.
With the advent of the natural gas boom in Western Pennsylvania, as well as some large, multi-year highway projects to better handle the increased traffic loads brought on by the energy industry, the demand for people with skilled trades shows no signs of abating.
The seminar I attended focused on construction trades related to heavy highway construction, but as one trade union representative noted, demand for welders is also being driven by the pipeline and midstream processing buildout as natural gas extraction continues to grow in the Marcellus Shale.
While Fincke acknowledged that weather is often a factor in determining whether construction crews will work, there is an upside to working in highway construction.
“It is a great career. You can not outsource construction. It goes up and down with the economy, but there are always going to be jobs in construction.”
Michael Bradwell is business editor for the Observer-Reporter.