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Shifting Perceptions of Skilled Trade Careers

by: Jason Jones, Business Manager, 3M
Cedric Smith, a welder, attributes getting certified to restoring his hope and allowing him a second chance at life.
Cedric Smith, a welder, attributes getting certified to restoring his hope and allowing him a second chance at life.
Paige Knowles, a 19-year-old plumber, authored the children’s book “Plumber Paige,” inspired by her own experiences.
Paige Knowles, a 19-year-old plumber, authored the children’s book “Plumber Paige,” inspired by her own experiences.
Andrea Martin, a safety and fall protection specialist, was named one of the 2022 Top Women in Safety by Canadian Occupational Safety.
Andrea Martin, a safety and fall protection specialist, was named one of the 2022 Top Women in Safety by Canadian Occupational Safety.
Skilled workers are a vital part of our global communities and economies. We rely on these professionals to build the places we live, work, and play. But with nearly one in four construction workers over the age of 55 and nearing retirement, the need to replenish the pipeline has never been more evident. When we pause to consider the consequences of a decreasing skilled workforce, it becomes clear that the need to attract young workers to enter these fields is a matter of urgency.

According to 2023 U.S. projections from Associated Builders and Contractors, construction firms must attract an estimated 546,000 workers in addition to their normal staffing to meet current labor demands. According to an analysis by PeopleReady Skilled Trades, in the first few months of 2023, there were more than 770,000 unique skilled trades job postings from nearly 95,000 different employers across the country. Even more, the Manufacturing Institute projected 2.1 million jobs would go unfulfilled by 2030 from a lack of skilled labor. It’s clear that we need more people to fill these jobs.

So how do we help fuel this youthful pipeline of talent? To help answer this question, the 2023 3M State of Science Index – a global, third-party research study that explored how people view a range of science-related topics – sought to explore what barriers impact entry to the skilled trades. By exposing these barriers, we hope it helps the industry break them down.

Through our original research, we found there is a stigma associated with skilled trades that deters professionals from entering these important careers. To shore up the future of the skilled trades, we must change the stigma.

Do Skilled Trades Have an Image Problem?
We must shift the perception that stops professionals from entering the trades. Skilled trade careers are not seen as being “as important” as other careers. Stereotypes depict tradespeople as uneducated, even though that’s far from the truth.

According to the 2023 3M State of Science Index, nearly nine in ten Americans (87 percent) believe that if the image of skilled trade careers improved, more people would choose to go into one.

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The solution is multi-faceted, but we can start by inspiring, educating, and encouraging tomorrow’s young workers to consider skilled trades. Research tells us that young people are eager to work in worthy careers, and skilled trades provide respectable and vital careers that contribute to the economy, our infrastructure, society, and the overall quality of life for our collective future. The public recognizes this universally. In fact, the 2023 3M State of Science Index found that 90 percent of Americans see a consequence if their country cannot find a solution to the shortage of skilled trade workers.

In addition to breaking down the stigma associated with skilled trades, we also need to educate students about the spectrum of career paths and opportunities available in the trades, the specialized skillsets required of tradespeople, the potential earnings, and even the path to small business ownership.

Shifting Perceptions of Skilled Trade Careers
Last year, in response to these issues – and to help raise awareness, inspire, and educate the public around the opportunities available in the trades – 3M released “Skilled,” a docuseries created to dispel misperceptions and showcase diverse and meaningful trade careers.

Based on insights from the 3M State of Science Index, “Skilled” sparks a conversation about the modern realities of the skilled trades and what may be preventing more people from pursuing these vital careers. The film highlights four tradespeople at various stages in their careers, across industries. These stories include:

  • Paige Knowles, a 19-year-old plumber and author of the children’s book “Plumber Paige” that is inspired by her own experiences.
  • Cedric Smith, a welder who attributes getting certified to restoring his hope and allowing him a second chance at life.
  • Andrea Martin, a safety and fall protection specialist who was named one of the 2022 Top Women in Safety by Canadian Occupational Safety.
  • Anni Martinez, a Mexico-based gaffer specializing in lighting design who is part of Amazonas Electricas, an all-female team bringing diversity to Mexico's film industry.

By highlighting the diversity and breadth of trade careers, and how workers can find personal fulfillment and professional success along their respective journeys, we are helping create the workforce that will drive our economy and society forward – whether that be in safety, infrastructure, the plumbing in our houses, or behind the scenes of our favorite movies.

Championing Real People and Their Stories
“Skilled” highlights real people with real stories. And they each have overcome the stigma of what it means to work in a skilled trade career.

To help promote and enhance the future of the skilled trades, continued education and encouragement are a must. There is also an imperative for employers to develop programs that will enhance their workforce – both by attracting new talent and by investing in this workforce’s future. For example, 3M developed the Saint Paul Public Schools 3M Advanced Learning Center in Minnesota, where students can take classes and earn college credit in multiple skilled trades disciplines through hands-on learning and state-of-the-art equipment. By helping to upskill the next generation, employers will ensure their employees have the skillsets required to build a better tomorrow, while also showing they are invested in their employees’ career growth.

Lastly, we need to continue championing these stories. Without them, we cannot create awareness of the beneficial aspects of working in the skilled trades, nor shift the stigma that is depleting tomorrow’s talent pipeline. By shining a light on our own journeys, we never know who we may inspire next. It’s the final piece of the puzzle.

To view “Skilled,” visit 3M.com/Skilled. To learn more about how 3M is encouraging more people to go into skilled trade careers, visit go.3M.com/skilledtrades.

Jason Jones is the Global Training Manager for the 3M Personal Safety Division, a world leader in the manufacture of personal protection equipment. He has had a variety of marketing, quality improvement, technical service, and consulting roles in his time at 3M. He began his career as a statistician for General Motors; was an instructor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota; and worked as a consultant for two different consulting companies.

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