Dead-end and dangerous. There was a time when trade and manufacturing jobs were characterized by negative stereotypes — back when jobs in welding and construction meant backbreaking work with little room for advancement. But this isn’t your grandfather’s workforce, and antiquated practices have given way to career paths, safety measures, and the growth of technology-based skills in sectors like health care and renewable energy.
Still, myths like the ones below still dog blue-collar work, even as more than 45,000 Delawareans make their living via a trade in growing sectors that offer more opportunities than ever before.
“Manufacturing is a dying industry and jobs are disappearing.”
In fact, several kinds of trade and manufacturing jobs are on the rise in Delaware. The construction industry is projected to be third-highest hiring industry in the next five years by the Delaware Department of Labor, faster than the average for all occupations. The growth has Ed Capodanno, president of Delaware’s Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) looking to add numbers to the construction workforce. “We are seeing some individuals coming into our industry. We need more to keep up with the pace of what’s happening,” he says.
And small and medium-size companies that specialize in high-tech manufacturing are in growth or sustain mode, says Paul Morris, associate vice president of workforce development and community education at Delaware Technical Community College.
“People who struggle academically go into the trades.”
Not true, say placement and apprentice specialists for New Castle County Vo-Tech School District. From high-level math skills to the ability to read and interpret technical manuals, the trades require many of the same skills as traditional colleges. To meet the new demands, the school district offers career programs like Science, Energy & Drafting Technologies, Construction Technologies & Business, and Communication & Computers — a lineup that reflects technology’s expanding role in today’s trade and manufacturing jobs.
“Many academically strong students pursue the trades instead of higher education because they have a sense that an office job is not for them, or they want the flexibility that the trades offer,” says Kathy Demarest,
the district’s community relations and public information officer.
Morris says that’s where Delaware does right by students to make sure they’re both college and career ready. “We tried to push every student to go to college. Not every student is going to go to college or has to go to college to make a family-sustaining wage. But that doesn’t mean you don’t pursue credentials or certifications, depending on where you’re headed,” he says. “Delaware Tech’s mission is to meet the workforce needs in Delaware so our enrollment seems to keep pace with the hiring needs of Delaware’s companies.”
“You can’t make as much money as you would with a four-year degree.”
Electric and electronics repairers averaged more than $83,000 last year, according to the Delaware Department of Labor; HVAC technicians earned $50,000. And the chemical manufacturing industry? Workers here earned $95,000 a year, on average.
Morris says a friend of his is a vice president of a notable construction company. He started out at 18 learning the ropes. Now in his mid-40s, he’s vice president of a multi-million-dollar company.
“As you get in a career and build your skill set, other opportunities are offered in that career,” he says.
And if four years of education is the benchmark, then consider this: The majority of apprenticeships are four years in length or 8,000 hours of on-the-job training before an apprentice is eligible for journey papers, according to the Delaware Department of Labor.
“There are no opportunities for growth… and it’s beneath me.”
“The trades offer room for advancement like few other careers,” says Demarest. “Most entry-level workers can move quickly through the ranks with promotions and supervision; higher skills are rewarded with higher wages.”
The trades offer many continuing education options such as journeyman courses, certificate courses at community colleges, and four-year pathways in construction management, technical drafting, or electrical/mechanical/construction engineering. Many colleges count apprenticeship years toward such college coursework.
“Construction is a great example,” says Morris. “People see others holding signs and digging a hole and think that’s all they’ll ever do. But there’s a continuum of training, and that’s just the first step — experience and skill come with higher-paying roles.”
Opportunities for training allow workers to progress to superintendent, foreman, supervisor, project manager or estimator, says Capodanno.
As for job satisfaction, Morris urges a look at some of Delaware’s well-traveled projects.
“That overpass near the mall [at I-95] is pretty amazing,” says Morris. “There are tradesmen that built that with their own hands. That’s not menial — that’s rewarding.”
“Work in the trades is dangerous.”
The trades are safer now than ever before, says Demarest. With standards and safety requirements imposed
by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), all companies have safety officers
and all employees must participate in safety training.
“Safety has come a long way in our industry,” says Capodanno. “There’s a full-time safety manager on staff at most construction companies and weekly ‘toolbox talks’ with workers who are constantly being drilled about safety. … Our goal in construction is to make sure every construction worker goes home the same way they came to work that morning.”