New Reports Investigate the State of High School Skilled Trades Education

Recent reports find that skilled trades education yields positive benefits for students and is supported by public opinion, but experience major gaps and opportunities for improvement.
Blog Post
May 27, 2020

Over 80 percent of voters support increased government funding for skilled trades classes in high school, but the data infrastructure and resources needed to grow such programs in construction and manufacturing is severely lacking, according to two new reports from NORC and JFF, which were commissioned by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. The demand for workers in the skilled trades remains high, but the supply of workers trained for these occupations lags behind. Exacerbated by an aging workforce and limited awareness of the trades, this shortage requires an established pipeline of skilled workers, beginning with high school students participating in career and technical education (CTE) programs. Despite significant barriers to growing and aligning skilled trades programs to meet the needs of students and the economy, there is evidence that skilled trades education yields positive benefits for students and is supported by popular public opinion.

The new report from NORC at the University of Chicago found that voters, parents, and high school students on both sides of the aisle view classes in the skilled trades positively. They support greater funding for these courses as a way to benefit large populations of students, including those in urban and rural areas, female students, and low- and middle-income students, as well as their own children (over 71 percent). This support likely stems from the opinion that CTE programs in the skills trades help prepare students for related careers (89 percent). This comes as no surprise, given that parents are most concerned with their child’s prospects for making a good living (71 percent) and graduating college without debt (65 percent). Trades education could unlock opportunities to family-sustaining careers while gaining access to postsecondary education and training.

Despite evidence of positive public opinion of skilled trades education, research from JFF found that negative perceptions of the trades continues to be a major barrier to participation by students. The trades continue to face stigma as a “dead-end” route for low-performing students. Such bias reinforces the need for greater exposure to, and understanding, of the opportunities made available by skilled trades education. Many pathways in the trades provide opportunities into college, full-time employment, training programs, and apprenticeships, so students can learn in-demand technical skills and gain work experience, often while earning a wage, to prepare for any career path.

The new report also provides evidence that students in the trades achieve positive outcomes, including higher high school graduation rates compared to the average for all high school students nationally. Prior research has also shed light on other benefits associated with CTE coursework, such as lower dropout rates and increased credential acquisition. However, it is worth noting that white male students are disproportionately represented across all trade courses, with lower rates of participation among girls and students of color. Moving forward, it is critical that these programs recruit and support underrepresented students in order to improve access to quality CTE programs and build a diverse workforce.

While coursework in the skilled trades opens up doors for many student, the new research from JFF also highlights major gaps and opportunities for improvement to better prepare students for the workforce and meet economic needs. A significant challenge for many states is the lack of resources to collect comprehensive data (beyond those required for accountability and compliance purposes), that paints a full picture of students’ participation and outcomes in these programs.

What data do exist, however, illuminate areas for improvement, including better alignment between labor market needs and student participation in coursework related to in-demand trades. For example, sectors such as construction and advanced manufacturing represent the largest share of projected job openings in 36 states, but CTE courses in those fields see dramatic under-enrollment by students. This discrepancy further exacerbates labor shortages in the field and limits the availability of well-paying jobs for students once they enter the workforce. Furthermore, efforts to correct these imbalances may be hindered by teacher shortages in the trades and limited resources to expand and improve programming that better aligns with and meets local labor market demand. With the right resources and alignment, skilled trades education has the potential to meet the needs of both students and employers.

An example is the Career and Technical (CTE) Youth Apprenticeship program at Prince George’s County Public Schools, which launched an apprenticeship program to build a local pipeline of talent in the skilled trades. High school students enrolled in the CTE program can begin apprenticeships in plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and masonry starting in the 11th grade. For their on-site work, they earn a minimum of $15 per hour and have the option to continue their training at Prince George’s Community College. Students in this registered apprenticeship program can go on to earn a journeyperson’s license and receive preferential hiring at county agencies upon completion. This program is one of several in the PAYA Network to use youth apprenticeships as a way to increase exposure to and participation in the skilled trades industry by high school students.

These reports present significant opportunities to expand and improve the current structures that support skilled trades education in high schools. Now more than ever, when the operations of many of these workers have been identified as “essential,” leaders in government, industry, and education must collaborate to ensure that students gain the experience, education, and training they will need to secure quality jobs with family-sustaining wages in the future, while also meeting the needs of the current labor market.

The Smidt Foundation and Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, which commissioned these reports, define the skilled trades as, “Professions that emphasize the expert use of tools and materials to build or repair products and structures, and which lead to good jobs with strong potential for advancement and high wages.”

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Related Topics
Youth Apprenticeship Workforce Development & CTE