Would You Rather Be a Barista or a Plumber?

Carolyn V. Murray

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No one grows up dreaming of being a plumber. Maybe an astronaut. Or a veterinarian. Someone who gets to work with dolphins and whales. Or a star athlete. A musician - not in a struggling busker kind of way, but in a rock star kind of way. Or a rap star kind of way – that would be cool. Or how about professional poker player – super cool.

Perhaps you’re a little more mindful of social status and making your parents proud and having a career that will win you some cache on dating sites and at high school reunions. Lawyer, doctor, finance wiz, executive something or other, CEO…

Just don’t embarrass yourself or your parents by becoming a plumber. But you didn’t need for me to tell you that.

I’m going to pass on some facts and opinions about the benefits of going into a skilled trade job. Maybe you’re young enough to take it into consideration while making your life plans. Or maybe you’re spitting distance from retiring and this is no longer a relevant option for you. But if you have kids, nieces, nephews, grandkids, students, or know of anyone who’s at a career crossroads, then feel free to listen in. You may be able to educate and encourage them in directions they hadn’t previously been aware of.

Show me the money

There are very few young people who would give serious consideration to plumbing as a career path. Or electrician. Or construction. Or welding. In fact, a survey (conducted by Metal Supermarkets) of 500 men and women ages 18-24, half said that they would prefer a job as a barista over being a welder.

Now there’s nothing wrong with being a barista. But nationally, they earn an average of $11 an hour, which adds up to $22,880 annually, assuming a 40-hour week and a two-week paid vacation. Contrast that with the $100,000 a year that a welder might be able to bring home. Or the $100,000-200,000 that a Seattle plumber could look forward to. (The plumber would even be paid $15 or $16 an hour to learn their trade – which still beats the barista’s paycheck.)

And if that barista job still sounds more appealing, I can’t say I’m surprised. The trade school route, with its abundance of jobs and lucrative salaries, continues to have an image problem, and it has for decades.

Out of sight, out of mind

When we hear and see things, they become part of our reality. Whether you ask a six-year-old or a sixteen-year-old what they’d like to do with their lives, the answers are going to come from the professions that they see on television, in the movies, on YouTube, in the social circle of parents, relatives, and neighbors, as well as jobs that are discussed and encouraged by teachers and the school system.

Nowhere are they likely to hear anything about plumbers (except maybe in a heist movie where the thieves dress as plumbers to get close to the money!)

When I was in high school in the seventies, college was presented as the only promising path in life. It didn’t matter whether or not you knew what you wanted to do with that degree. That would get figured out along the way. But without college, there was nothing waiting for you besides pumping gas, mind-numbing retail, and “you want fries with that?” I don’t recall trade jobs ever being mentioned to students, much less being presented as a positive option (and I did take a shop class – the very first year it was available to girls.)

I don’t think things have changed much. Except that now students are leaving college with six-figure debts and are often faced with lukewarm or unstable job prospects.

Time to flip the script

I think schools, teachers, and parents have got to seriously address the messages and options that they’re presenting to young people. Have young trade school graduates come in for career talks (not older workers – a lot of kids won’t be able to relate.) Bring in workers from several different professions. Talk about the salaries. Talk about the problems of college debt.

If students are intrigued but worried about the prospect of losing out on a “real” education, remind them that free college courses and curriculums are online and they can choose to acquire in-depth knowledge in whatever field of study that intrigues them – languages, economics, international relations, literature…

They should also be aware that they are free to change their minds about their careers several times during the course of their lives. They shouldn’t be afraid to try trade school out and feel as if it’s a decision that they’re stuck with if it doesn’t suit them.

The important thing is that going into the skilled trades cannot lose its stigma fast enough. It could provide an excellent path for tens of thousands of students if it’s presented to them in a positive light.

An excellent alternative to college

Straight-A math student Rebeca Espinal dreamed of going to college and majoring in international relations. But then, fearful of going into debt, decided to try working with a company that recruited at her high school. At 17, she’s an apprentice with the German company Siemens and works in a Charlotte, N.C., factory that makes gas turbines and generators.

Thankfully, it sounds as if she’s happy with her decision. “I don't regret it because you have opportunities in this company to grow," she says. "And so, one of my goals ultimately in this company is to become an engineer, and possibly, you know, travel around the world, go to other Siemens factories, and maybe, you know, work with other engineers from other countries.”

The nineteen other apprentices in her training group also came from the top academic levels at their school – which goes far to erase the stereotype that trade jobs are for people who weren’t strong in traditional academics.

Being useful

I think we anticipate that there’s not a lot of satisfaction in the trade jobs. Yet if you ask the people who actually work them, nothing could be further from the truth. They spend their days fixing problems. Getting people out of jams. Receiving thanks from enormously relieved customers. Knowing that they’ve brought warmth or light or water back into a home that housed elderly people or disabled people or children.

I might go so far as to say that you may get a bigger and more continual sense of being useful to others than you would, say, as an Instagram influencer, a YouTuber, or a life coach – all thoroughly saturated fields. Jaw-droppingly oversaturated. (Oh, I shouldn’t drag YouTubers too hard. I’m likely to start a channel myself. Doesn’t everyone?)

Job abundance

My mother often recalls a time in American life from the ’50s through the ’70s when anyone who graduated from college just had to walk down the street and they’d be scooped up for a job. Slight exaggeration aside, a college degree was once the ticket to job security and the good life.

Today, a skilled trade degree or training is the ticket. Boomers who occupied these jobs are leaving the workforce. Owners of construction and plumbing companies cannot find the workers they need. Carpenters, electricians, welders, utility workers, sheet-metal work, pipe-fitting…the number of job openings is frustrating for those doing the hiring and an encouraging sign of a plentiful job market for the job seekers. This demand is expected to grow even more when a nationwide plan to bolster the country’s infrastructure gets underway.

Blue-collar jobs advocate Mike Rowe gives out small scholarships for training and was tickled to recall a mechanics student of his who is now lead mechanic at Beverly Hills BMW. There really is an incredibly wide range of job paths for individuals to choose from.

But those jobs aren’t cool, creative, meaningful, or fulfilling

Right, unlike being a barista. Or a cashier. Or working in a call center. Or driving for Uber. Or working in an Amazon warehouse. Because as much as we all want to take the fast train to our perfect life, most of us can’t get there without our fair share of detours. Which includes less than ideal jobs.

But..but...sure, we have to make do with a few low-paid, low glamour positions, you say. It’s just a temporary stepping stone until life gets back on track. Training for a trade job, however, is a big commitment to a career path that just doesn’t feel like me or what my life should be about.

The problem with that cool career you want is that everyone else wants it as well so that the competition is fierce. (A lesson learned while pursuing screenwriting for seventeen years in Los Angeles.) While you’re inching towards that cool, creative thing, you still have to pay bills and keep a roof over your head. Or if still at home, chip in your fair share and save up for your future independence.

The truth is you’re likely to spend a fair portion of your working life doing something that you don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for. It’s not what anyone plans, but you could spend the first ten years of your life bagging groceries, answering phones, delivering packages – all the while plotting your escape into a much cooler destiny.

Or…you could spend those ten years unclogging drains and making ten grand a month. Using your six-figure income to help your parents with their mortgage. Getting a sweet apartment far across town from your parents because they’re driving you nuts. Go traveling once a year to the countries you’ve dreamed about your whole life – because now you can afford it. Live on a tight budget and F.I.R.E. your way to retirement by age 35. (Of course, it wouldn’t be a real retirement, just a chance to make a full-time transition to your passion project.)

After ten years of work, you could be free of debt and have a quarter-million dollars in the bank. Food for thought.

Most of us will occupy five or six jobs before we reach traditional retirement age. It’s quite possible a job in the skilled trades might only be stage one of your working life, but serve to set up a firm financial foundation for all the dreams that follow.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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