Is higher pay enough to save the trades?
April 14, 2021 | 2:23 pm CDT




"Do you know anyone that does good carpentry?" is a question YouTuber and former carpenter Ethan James is often asked. James is better known on YouTube as The Honest Carpenter.

"I don't have a single name any more of someone that I can recommend in the area," he says in a recent YouTube video. "Not one. I'm a carpenter and I don't know any other good, independent carpenters. How does that happen?

"I mean, it's no mystery that trade participation is down. And I'm talking across the board, across the country."

James started his successful YouTube channel in 2018 after knee surgery forced him out of his day-to-day carpentry work. Since then he has been making videos - some of which touch on the now infamous workforce issue affecting the trades.

James believes lack of pay is the primary reason for the workforce shortage. And not all trades are faring equally. He explains:

"Painting and drywall are simpler trades," he says. "But that does not make them easy. Plumbing on the other hand is very complex. There's a lot to learn. Things have to be done right. But there are much better training programs associated with plumbing. It's a more regulated industry."

This allows for more pay, James posits. He says plumbers in his area (Raleigh, N.C.) make $100 an hour on average, while electricians and HVAC technicians (who are also more regulated than carpenters, he says) make $80 and $125 an hour on average, respectively.

"And then your carpenter shows up and charges $25 to $50 an hour.

"In any industry, scarcity drives value," he continues. "So in the not-too-distant future, when we really fall off this labor shortage cliff, everybody in America who lives in a house or building - which is darn near everybody - is going to have to ask themselves: 'How much is a carpenter really worth?'"

Some of our readers seem to agree with James. In a survey Woodworking Network conducted in early 2019, 80 percent of respondents said they're having trouble finding workers. And 65 percent of those said they're raising pay and benefits in an attempt to cope. 42 percent said they're opting to lower hiring standards.

In an opinion article, I argue that the issue is more cultural. I don't believe we've done a good job at convincing young people that what's really important in life is meaning, not necessarily money and prestige. And woodworking and trade jobs I argue can provide more meaning than the trendy office and tech jobs of today.

Others argue that we must improve the reputation of woodworking and the trades. That we must show young people that the industry isn't just a dusty old guy slaving away with primitive tools in his dark, windowless shop. 

Let us know what you think. Would higher pay alleviate the labor shortage affecting many trades? Or is it more complicated than that?








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About the author
Robert Dalheim

Robert Dalheim is an editor at the Woodworking Network. Along with publishing online news articles, he writes feature stories for the FDMC print publication. He can be reached at [email protected]