Studies find need for more and better high school trades education
June 30, 2020 | 12:20 pm CDT

CALABASAS, Calif. – A pair of research projects commissioned by Harbor Freight Tools for Schools (HFTS) find broad support for high school trades education in America, including the need to offer students more opportunities than are currently available.

One of the research projects is a public opinion poll that revealed a “remarkably positive view of skilled trade classes.” The other study explored the current state of skilled trade programs in U.S. public high schools and found there is great need for improvement to meet the needs of both students and the skilled trades.

“(The coronavirus) crisis underscores the degree to which we depend on skilled tradespeople,” said Eric Smidt, founder of Harbor Freight Tools and The Smidt Foundation, which includes Harbor Freight Tools for Schools. “These studies demonstrate that Americans want skilled trades education, but far too often students don’t have access to skilled trades classes in their high schools. When we teach trades in high school, we give students a head-start on the road to fulfilling, good-paying careers that our country desperately needs.”

NORC at the University of Chicago polled nearly 6,000 voters, parents of high school students, and students themselves. Among the poll’s highlights:

  • 79 percent of parents believe their child would be more prepared for a career if they had the chance to study a trade in high school;
  • 72 percent of students say high schools could do a better job of giving them chances to learn real-world skills;
  • At least 7 in 10 voters, parents and students want employers to do more to support skilled trades education;
  • 8 in 10 voters support more funding for high school skilled trades education; and
  • 80 percent of voters described the trades as “important.”

The second study was conducted by JFF, an independent workforce development nonprofit organization. It analyzed federal and state data on skilled trades programs, students, student outcomes, and teachers, and interviewed state career and technical education leaders in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In stark contrast to the NORC poll, the JFF study found that a lingering stigma against the trades, limits student participation.

“Today’s skilled trades education is about offering all students more paths to a secure, fulfilling future doing essential work, and it’s clear that Americans want and need this training,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of HFTS. “Providing pathways for young people to solid jobs is going to be even more important as communities across the country suffer the economic fallout from COVID-19, and begin to rebuild our economy and infrastructure.”

In addition to the perceived stigma, the largest challenge facing skilled trades education, study authors noted, is an absence of data so significant that they deemed it a “data desert with a few oases.” Thirty-eight states representing 81 percent of all high school students responded to requests for data, but only five states were able to provide data in every category requested.

“We’re making policy in the dark,” said John White, a former Louisiana state superintendent who was interviewed for the study.

Despite the data challenges, the report captures several key baseline findings:

  • Of the more than 11 million public high school students in the 32 states that provided skilled trades enrollment data for the 2016-2017 school year, 872,452 or 8 percent, took a skilled trades course. (Fifteen million students are enrolled in high school nationwide.)
  • In those same states, students concentrating in trades -- taking two or more courses in sequence, indicating strong interest -- would fill less than 10 percent of the 975,000 projected job openings from 2018 to 2028, many of which are driven by retirements.
  • Students who complete a concentration have higher graduation rates than the 85 percent national average for high school students overall.
  • Against the backdrop of a nationwide teacher shortage across many subjects, trades teachers represent an aging workforce, with a higher median age than teachers overall.

“Every student should have the chance to explore multiple pathways, including attending college, earning a two-year degree or industry certificate, pursuing an apprenticeship or finding a job right after graduation,” Corwin said. “College and career should never be an either-or, especially not as we face unprecedented economic uncertainty and dislocation. We need to maximize opportunity for the students and families who need it most, and high school skilled trades education is one critical way to do that.”



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Rich Christianson | President/Owner/C-Level

Rich Christianson is the owner of Richson Media LLC, a Chicago-based communications firm focused on the industrial woodworking sector. Rich is the former long-time editorial director and associate publisher of Woodworking Network. During his nearly 35-year career, Rich has toured more than 250 woodworking operations throughout North America, Europe and Asia and has written extensively on woodworking technology, design and supply trends. He has also directed and promoted dozens of woodworking trade shows, conferences and seminars including the Cabinets & Closets Conference & Expo and the Woodworking Machinery & Supply Conference & Expo, Canada’s largest woodworking show.