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Groundbreaking program for middle and high schoolers will help close talent gap in skilled trades

As the Great Resignation rolls on, organizations in nearly every industry are scrambling to fill open roles. The hiring crisis is not new for those competing for skilled-trade professionals though. The shortage of qualified people in that sector existed long before Covid-19 jolted the labor market.

More than a quarter of tradespeople in the home industry — 27% — are within 10 years of being able to collect Social Security at 62. Currently, the national average of workers in the construction industry is 41, while in the manufacturing sector, it's 47. Pennsylvania is ranked within the top states with the oldest median age of construction workers at 44. Yet, young men and women are not filling positions vacated by retiring workers.

At the rapid rate Baby Boomers are retiring, this situation is not going to improve for skilled trades unless the traditional education model changes, according to Patrice Matamoros, president of Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania.

Two key issues are impacting the ability to recruit trades professionals: lack of awareness about these careers and a negative perception.

“Students are not getting the full picture,” said Matamoros. “Unless someone in their family is in skilled trades, many students and parents aren’t aware of these jobs, or the benefits associated.”

The truth about trade schools and careers in skilled trades

There are many misconceptions about skilled trades, such as they’re old fashioned, not secure due to lack of innovation, or low paying. However, there are a wide variety of opportunities in the trades from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to health care, and many of these jobs offer salaries that are often better than what a college graduate could earn.

For example, the median salary of a mental health counselor with a four-year degree is $47,660, while a dental hygienist with a two-year degree earns a median pay of $77,090.

The cost to attain career skills varies widely. In 2019-20, tuition ranged as follows (these rates don’t include the added expense of room, board, books and supplies):

People who take positions in the skilled trades have two additional years of earning an income and two fewer years of adding student loan debt.


What it will take to reverse the shortages in skilled trades

“It’s going to take a concerted effort from every state in the country to reverse the shortages in the skilled trades,” said Matamoros. “The earlier we can introduce these careers to kids, the better it will be. We need to get in front of them while they’re still in the decision-making phase of their education journey.”

Matamoros believes the awareness and education about the skilled trades needs to be more comprehensive. “We need to reach all the key stakeholders — parents, teachers, school counselors, principals, superintendents and legislators,” Matamoros said. “We need to bring everyone together to build more awareness about the skilled trades and destroy the old adages of what people think the skilled trades are.”

Groundbreaking pre-apprenticeship program will be beta tested in Pittsburgh

To help solve this huge issue, Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania has developed a groundbreaking digital career module. It’s called JA Careers in Skilled Trades and it will introduce seventh through 12th grade students to skilled trades career pathways and help them discover what professions align with their skills and interests. The experience will demonstrate to students how technical skills are essential to all professions.

A pilot of this approved pre-apprenticeship program will be launched in the Pittsburgh area in spring 2023. It will be formally rolled out to 100 schools in fall 2023. By 2024, Careers in Skilled Trades will be offered to more than 330 schools in western Pennsylvania.

“Our goal is to reach 45,000 students in the next three to four years,” Matamoros said.

A sponsor of Junior Achievement of Western Pennsylvania for over 50 years, the PPG Foundation is a key contributor to the Careers in Skilled Trades program.

“The PPG Foundation has a focus on education and workforce development,” said Malesia Dunn, executive director of the PPG Foundation and Global Corporate Social Responsibility. “We wanted to get involved in this program because it’s about helping educate and provide specific skills to young people.”

Career strategies to guide middle and high school students

Using gamification strategies, the program will help students identify career clusters of interest. The program will serve as a feeder system into industry and trade-specific training and certificate programs that currently exist.

“There are already programs designed for 11th and 12th graders, so our program will help funnel students into those programs,” said Matamoros. “We’ll be helping students match their skills and interests with high-growth, high-demand careers. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel; we’ll be a conduit for our students to further training opportunities for these careers.”

“This type of program creates workforce readiness and that’s incredibly important to the region,” said Dunn. “It helps create a better community environment.”

“We see success as providing the tools and resources students, parents and educators need to help bridge the awareness gap, but also to have a rewarding career in the skilled trades,” Matamoros said.

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.


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