The battle against COVID-19 may well have been the world’s greatest challenge since World War II, and just as life after the war was not the same as it was before, life after the coronavirus is almost certainly not going to be the same as it was 15 months ago.
To cite just one example, so many people have worked remotely, and have done so without a detectable drop in productivity, that it is bound to call into question the purpose of all those enormous office buildings out there, which will have knock-on effects on office parks, downtown business districts and the whole commercial real estate industry.
And while the job market is recovering and some economists say a boom is just around the corner, there are some jobs that probably won’t be coming back in sectors like restaurants, retail and hospitality. Looking down the road, the trend toward automation will almost certainly gather speed as proprietors seek to “pandemic-proof” their enterprises in case another virus paralyzes the world in a decade or two.
There are some professions, though, where the supply right now is greater than the demand, where the compensation is solid and the barriers to entry are not as formidable as they are in other lines of work. Those jobs are in the skilled trades, and that includes everything from the carpenter who helps refurbish your kitchen, to the plumber who clears the clogged drain in that kitchen.
On Tuesday, former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis stopped at the 84 Lumber outlet in South Fayette Township to talk up the skilled trades on “National Signing Day,” which had high school seniors signing pledges to continue learning about and working in the skilled trades, just as some of their peers sign on the dotted line to attend certain universities and participate in collegiate athletic programs. Bettis remembered how his dad worked as an electrical inspector in Detroit for most of his career, and how he might have pursued similar work had his football career not blossomed.
Bettis said, “This is important work.”
Arguably, the skilled trades have not been treated like important work, much to the detriment of students and the workforce as a whole. Many students have been pushed toward attending a college or university when they might have been better off attending a community college or technical school. Not only would they have been closer to finding a job that they like that comes with a decent paycheck – some jobs in the skilled trades pay anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000 per year – but they wouldn’t have to carry the crushing load of debt that can follow the four-year effort to get a bachelor’s degree.
Ed Gillespie, a counselor to President George W. Bush and a onetime candidate for governor of Virginia, pointed out recently that “most Americans don’t get college degrees, and the demand in the labor market for skilled labor and certification training is strong, but there’s a gap in supply.”
If there has been a stigma attached to work in the skilled trades, it needs to be removed. After the pandemic, we all might be inclined to value “essential workers” a little bit more. That sense of appreciation needs to extend to workers in the skilled trades who perform necessary and beneficial work every day.