Although the spirit of the popular phrase work smarter, not harder holds merit, the images and feelings this phrase conjures may be one of the culprits behind America’s skills gap— the number of skilled jobs open versus the number of skilled laborers available and willing to fill those positions. The phrase suggests that working hard and being smart are two separate categories. It also suggests that pursuing a college education is superior to pursuing a skilled trade, a belief reinforced on a popular 1977 poster of a smiling diploma-wielding graduate student standing beside a young man holding a wrench and covered in dirt. This poster says “Work Smart, Not Hard” and is a prime example of how the push for more youth to enter college came at the expense of one of their other options: manufacturing, and the skilled trades.

At some point, the idea that four-year degrees are always the best decision post-high school became so powerful that many youths began to think of anything other than college as less desirable. This may explain why in May 2018 reported that Americans are knee-deep in over $1 trillion in student loans, even though there are 6 million jobs unfilled. Students are graduating from college in droves but when they aren’t able to land the job that inspired their degree, they are not accepting well-paid, opportunity-filled positions in manufacturing or considering a skilled trade.

“As unemployment hovers near historic lows, over 80% of construction firms have reported they are having a hard time finding qualified workers to hire,” says an August 2018 Forbes article. Why is this? If student loan debt is out of control and work ethic is a choice, as Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It, preaches, why are so many manufacturing positions open? According to Rowe, “our society has fallen out of love with the skilled trades.”

How do we fall back in love with the skilled trades, you ask? How does society address the skills gap, the overwhelming number of open manufacturing positions, and astronomical student loan debt? For starters, learning a skill and pursuing mastery of that skill needs to summon as much respect as a college-bound and the armed services-bound student receives for their decision. Society needs to stop suggesting that manufacturing is harder, not smarter.

Treating the skilled trades route as less than, simply because it’s not college, is preventing a large portion of an entire generation from pursuing the jobs that are both available and financially lucrative. No wonder Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute released a skills gap study in 2018 that predicts a lack of qualified workers will cause the US to lose $454 billion in manufacturing GDP (Gross Domestic Product) by 2028. If we can’t fill the manufacturing and skilled trades positions, we will not be able to produce as many products and deliver as many services.

The bottom line is we can not thrive without manufacturing and the skilled trades. Take plumbers. If the only toilet in the home breaks at midnight, a plumber is called within the hour, not within the week. Because of a plumber’s skill set and the high demand nature of the job, many plumbers will find themselves capable of a six-figure paycheck. The moral of the story is that we’re doing our youth a disservice by downplaying the path toward learning and mastering a skilled trade.

In order to thrive, our world needs people who are college-bound, skilled-trade bound, and armed serves-bound. More importantly, we need to look at these three directions as highways that weave over, under, and around each other. By only paving and erecting street lights on the highway that leads to college, we’re not encouraging people to consider all the possible directions they could travel. We need to pave and illuminate all post-high school options, with an intentional effort to acknowledge how every direction is pivotal to the success of the country. Perhaps then society will start to see a decline in student loan debt and an increase in the number of people happily supporting their family and lifestyle with the career they pursued and the work ethic they’ve chosen to demonstrate.

Author: Evelyn Lindell