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One benefit of a career in skilled trades: Earning while they learn

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Bryon Short has a pretty compelling pitch to parents and students who might think the only path to a successful career is by heading to a four-year college after high school: How great would it be for young people to embark on their employment journeys with a little money in their pockets and without debt?

High school graduates who enter union apprentice programs in trades earn income while they learn and enter their field without the burden of college loans.

“How long does it take for people to catch up from debt?” Short asks.

It’s a good question. And that freedom from loans is one of the benefits available to those who go into trades. Short, who has been executive VP of the Delaware Contractors Association since fall 2018, and those in other trades emphasize that young people who choose to work as electricians, plumbers, construction professionals and many other professions can earn good wages and move into management and business ownership. But it’s up to parents to understand that a teenager’s path doesn’t always have to be the same as everybody else’s.

“Parents have outsized voices in their children’s lives,” Short says. “If a parent says going to college is the only choice, that’s what a kid is going to do. If going to college will help a young person’s chosen career, he or she should go to college.

“But it’s important for parents to understand the diversity of opportunity available to people who go into the construction industry.”

Dan Hahn, president of Furness Electric in Wilmington, began working in the industry when he was a freshman in high school. His father owned the company which he now leads. After graduation, Hahn spent a couple years in college and decided “that just wasn’t for me,” so he entered the apprentice program. Twenty eight years later, he can speak quite well to the benefits of a trade.

“I think there is a misconception of the person who packs his lunch in a cooler, wears a hard hat and puts boots on,” Hahn says. “There is a lack of education and information out there. Most people are drawn to careers by money, and there is a misconception of just how much money young people can make in trades and how quickly they can do it.”

When Hahn describes the beginning of a person’s exposure to a trade, he refers to “going on scholarship,” and he makes a good point. During the five-year period when a young tradesperson is learning in the field and the classroom, he or she is also earning an income. By the time the apprenticeship ends, not only is there no debt, as Short points out, there is also the opportunity to earn a strong union wage, often at the age of 23 or 24. Further, as new contracts are negotiated, the salaries increase.

“There is a huge difference between that and the actual grind of working up the corporate ladder,” Hahn says. “We have young people in the trade who are buying houses at a very young age and have their acts together.  By 25, they are financially stable.”

Alisha Bryson, vice president at Wayman Fire Protection in Wilmington, amplifies the value of a quick professional start. Wayman pays recent high-school graduates up to $25 and hour, which translates to a $52,000 annual salary. For an 18-year old.

“It doesn’t just put them four years ahead of college graduates in terms of experience,” she says. “These folks have good credit, no debt and four years of experience under their belt. They are hirable, have some material possessions and are on a nice track. Maybe they have even already put a down payment on a house. They might be 10 years ahead of their college counterparts.”

Bryson reports that union sprinkler fitters at Wayman can make more than $100,000 a year. She says that average Delaware wage earner in a trade takes in about $60,000 annually.

There is more than just the salary. From the minute a person signs on as an apprentice, he or she receives top-shelf health-care benefits that include dental and often vision plans. There is no waiting period, according to Hahn. There is also a pension benefit offered by the union that will provide income after retirement. Hahn explains it as a multiplier: each year a person works is multiplied by $1,000, to calculate the monthly benefit. Work 30 years, and you’ll get $3,000 a month.

Chris Baker, president and CEO of George & Lynch, an infrastructure contractor, says that his company offers a 401(k) plan and paid vacation time.

Further, there is the opportunity for a union member to buy an annuity over the course of one’s career and to manage it through a third-party investment company, such as Vanguard. Hahn estimates that a person who works 35 years in a trade and pays in religiously “should walk out with close to a million dollars, provided there is a modest, 6- to 8% growth each year.”

Another positive of the trade life is that people who complete their apprenticeships and get their “journey-person’s” papers have the opportunity to transport their skills anywhere in the country and find work.

“If there is a lack of work in Delaware, or you just want to travel, you can go,” Hahn says. “You can do electric work anywhere in the country, because of the National Electric Code. Your knowledge will go with you.”

That flexibility is good, and so are the opportunities to become supervisors, project managers and eventually business owners. Bryson emphasizes that it’s also important to know that tradespeople don’t have to be completely dependent on new construction for work.

“After a building is finished, it is a breathing entity,” she says. “If someone needs a new executive office, a wall might get moved, so new plumbing and HVAC work has to get done. If thereis an IT change, the wiring has to be redone. All of this work is being done for companies. “Buildings will always need service.”

Hahn says that he has tried hiring college graduates to fill supervisory positions but that their lack of experience with field work has inhibited their ability to lead work crews.

And Short understands the value of owning a business.

“There are headaches, but there is also a huge upside,” he says.

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