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Reaching youth early is key to solving the skilled trades worker shortage

The shortage of workers in the skilled trades is partly a matter of too few young people taking an interest in the professions. In many cases, they simply don’t know much about them.

Lack of knowledge and negative perceptions are major obstacles to preparing more students for jobs in the trades. These are problems Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania is addressing with a groundbreaking, pre-apprenticeship digital career platform called JA Careers in Skilled Trades. The program will begin by exposing students in grades five through eight to skilled trades career pathways and help them discover what professions match their skills and interests. Over the next several years, the organization’s goal is to have programming and resources about skilled trades careers, training, and pathways for youth ranging from kindergarten through age 25.

Research reveals students lack a comprehension of the trades

“I don't think kids understand the opportunities available to them,” said Anne Naqi, vice president and chief human resources officer at Equitrans Midstream Corp. “For years, educational systems were focused on preparing students for four-year degree programs. We haven’t placed enough emphasis on skilled trades.” The energy company and its Equitrans Midstream Foundation are providing financial and learning support for the program.

Student interviews conducted during early research for the JA Careers in Skilled Trades program suggested students have little comprehension of the trades, including vocabulary terms, skills needed, career options, and other opportunities, such as benefits and salaries. Most students were not able to even define what an apprenticeship is.

One student, a seventh grader at the time of the interview, knew that skilled trades include “welding, carpentry, things you do with your hands.”

But another student, an 11th grader, said: “Honestly, I had to look into what skilled trades were for this interview.”

A ninth grader had a sense the skilled trades are varied and involve “being able to do a lot more things than just one thing.”

Another research finding, which included interviews with students from several school districts and industry professionals, showed that young people blurred the distinctions between skilled trades as careers versus hobbies.

“Skilled trades are something cool to do as a hobby, but not a way I want to go with my career,” said a seventh grader.

Students who have had exposure to the world of work and skilled trades mentorships or programs showed more clarity.

“I know [skilled trades] are in high demand right now, so people probably pay a lot,” a ninth grader told the research team. “If I pick up a trade and am good at it, I can probably make a lot of money off of it. Before high school, I really didn't know anything about the trades … Eighth-grade year, we had Intro to Ag Mechanics, and my teacher listed all the things you can learn and the things you can turn this into.”

Beta testing JA’s pre-apprenticeship program

The approved pre-apprenticeship program, JA Careers in Skilled Trades, will pilot in the spring of 2023. Plans call for offering it in 330 western Pennsylvania schools by 2024.

Northgate School District welcomes the opportunity to partner with Junior Achievement on the project, according to Dr. Caroline Johns, superintendent of the district, and Dr. Chris Caton, director of curriculum and assessment. The focus on skilled trades fits well with another district programming, including the career preparation courses offered at A.W. Beattie Career Center for students in grades 10-12, Caton said.

“Within Northgate, there isn't the negative perception [of skilled trades] that exists in some other places,” Caton said. “In this district, there is a practicality and a desire for everyone to move into careers that are fulfilling to them. Our counselors do a nice job of having conversations with students about careers and the options that are available.”

Johns said the question of skilled trades versus university is not always an either/or proposition. “There's more programming now where kids really can do both. They can do internships in a skilled trade during the day and college at night and not come out with all the debt.”

Naqi, at Equitrans Midstream, said Junior Achievement is “on the right track” with JA Careers in Skilled Trades. The program will use gamification strategies and help students determine career clusters of interest. It will serve as a feeder channel into the existing industry and trade-specific training programs.

About one-third of the roles at Equitrans Midstream are in skilled trades, and, at any given time, the company typically has 10 to 15 openings for such positions. The jobs cover a wide range of mechanical, electronic, and other disciplines with titles including operations technician, instrumentation technician, and compression technician.

Some roles are becoming harder to fill and are affected by wage inflation as more workers retire and the job market experiences a post-pandemic crunch.

“There’s a finite number of people to fill these roles,” Naqi said. “We need to swing the pendulum back a bit to say there are students who don’t want to pursue a four-year degree and are not suited for it, and we need to continue to help them do what’s best for them. There are excellent opportunities for them.”

Let’s build our region’s future workforce together. If you are interested in investing in the JA Careers in Skilled Trades Pre-Apprenticeship Program or supporting the development of its curricula, contact Bill Lucas at or 412-376-3126.

Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania offers educational programs to inspire and prepare young people to succeed. It has impacted nearly 3 million students in western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia for over 80 years.

James Ritchie is a freelance writer for The Business Journals Content Studio.

James Ritchie is a freelance writer for The Business Journals Content Studio.

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