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A Wealth of Opportunities
By Tracy Dickinson
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A Wealth of Opportunities

The future is bright in the construction trades.

Anyone who has hired a contractor in the past few years knows how difficult finding a good one can be. And you also know what it’s worth when you find a good one.

For far too long, most of us have failed to make the connection between these two points and the consequences for the future—and the potential for employment in construction trades offers.

The Past

Since World War II and the inception of the GI Bill, Americans have seen a college degree as the path to a good future. For decades that was true. Young people left rural homes and small towns, following the growth of technology to better-paying manufacturing jobs, professional positions, and white-collar careers across the country.

As it’s been since time began, each generation has worked to make sure the next generation has better opportunities for success than the last. And that came to mean a college education, which opened doors that had been closed to the generations before them.

But in the past 20 years or so, the emphasis on earning college degrees has also resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of high school graduates entering the skilled trades.

Student at the Build My Future event

The Present

Fast-forward to today. A college education has become so common that it no longer sets one job seeker apart from the next. And the cost of that education has skyrocketed so high that the average graduate will still be paying off college debt until he or she reaches the mid-40s.

Forget about the house in the suburbs, the great-paying job, and the “better” life the previous generations sought. Today a college degree more often is a path to long-term debt and a highly competitive job market.

On the other hand, skilled-trades workers—carpenters, welders, electricians, and those in similar fields—are faced with the opposite dilemma. There’s so much work, contractors are forced to schedule months in advance. And the unemployment rate in these fields has dropped as low as 2 percent in some areas, making it nearly impossible for employers to hire qualified staff.

It seems like a “glass is more than half empty” situation.

But two years ago a number of professional organizations in central Iowa joined forces, forming the Iowa Skilled Trades Alliance to bring initiatives, education, and awareness of the need for more talented young people in the trades.

One of the Alliance’s first events, which garnered national attention, was bringing Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe to Des Moines to speak at a dinner attended by professionals, educators, and students. Rowe said at the time, “There are 6.2 million employment opportunities out there right now. Seventy-five percent of them require training but no degree.”

Student at the Build My Future event

The Future

What does all this mean for the future? Already, professionals, educators, and people in the skilled trades are spreading the word that a 4-year degree is not the only path to success. According to, a qualified contractor can make anywhere from $45,000 to well over $100,000 per year, with no shortage of jobs in sight.

Mike Rowe has made it his mission to bridge this gap, founding in 2008 to provide scholarships, raise awareness, and generally promote the abundance of opportunities available in the trades.

To help fill those openings, high schools and industry professionals have also partnered to design programs like that at Des Moines’ Central Campus ( and those at eastern Iowa school districts, which partner with Kirkwood Community College (, to train students and provide them with hands-on experience while still in high school.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds recognized the need across the state and helped ensure that Iowa young people would have opportunities to pursue these careers and that employers would have qualified applicants to meet the demand with her support of apprenticeship programs and other initiatives like the Future Ready Iowa Initiative. That program, designed to “connect the classroom to the real world with a results-driven approach to training young people for careers,” resulted in several events across the state. Over the past year Future Ready Iowa events connected students, educators, and employers.

And just last month, the first Build My Future event was held at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, with more than 2,000 high school students attending a free trade show with builders, remodelers, contractors, and trade unions offering interactive activities and career information.

If you focus on the past or even the lack of skilled-trades professionals today, the future looks bleak. But the future remains bright for young people who want to work with their hands, create something tangible at the end of the day, and know the satisfaction of a job well done. From that perspective, the glass is more than half full—it’s brimming with opportunities.


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