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How to Become a Tradesman

Skilled tradesmen are in short supply. Here are a few ways to get involved with the trades.

In the post-housing market boom and bust era, many have struggled to find work. If you’re looking at joining the construction industry, you may want to consider becoming a skilled craftsman, which has growing opportunities. As many baby boomers reach retirement age — a rate of 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 each day, according to the Pew Research Center — it’s leaving plenty of job openings.

“We have a significant amount of [the] population retiring from the skilled trades,” says Grant Shmelzer, executive director of Independent Electrical Contractors Chesapeake, a group that covers the mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

Shortage of Skilled Tradesmen

“There’s a shortage of skilled craftsmen today,” says Mike Uremovich, chairman of the Trimmer Construction Education Foundation, which is based in Arlington, Va. and promotes workforce development and careers in construction. As a result, “the future for tradesmen jobs in the construction industry is very good,” he says.

Construction is very demanding, Shmelzer adds, and you “can only put so many miles on [your body].” Plus, he says, a growing emphasis on higher education and college has deterred some younger people from enrolling in trade apprenticeships. Yet, both say there’s still a need for young people to pursue the trades because they’re essential to completing many different types of construction and building projects. “It’s not just a job, it’s a career,” Shmelzer says. “You can actually earn money while you’re getting your college credits.”

How to Become a Tradesman

The path of becoming a tradesman is not for everyone. Like the rest of the industry, it's seasonal work that is heavily impacted by the economy, Uremovich says. “Residential markets got crushed pretty much everywhere in the country. People have had a hard time sticking it out… But my feeling is, if you educate yourself and enhance your credentials, there’s always going to be that need.”

In order to work on public construction projects, you need to be involved in some type of apprenticeship program if you're not a journeyman, Shmelzer says. Tradesmen should register through their employer or union for safety reasons, and so that the employee can earn income while going through the apprenticeship program, Shmelzer says.

If you’re interested in becoming a tradesman, here are a few ways to get started:

  1. Work for a contractor or company that has a partnership with a training program that will cover training costs: Connect with a national trade association like Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), which represents merit shop contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers and related firms in the United States. The association has 75 chapters across the country and represents 23,000 construction companies, says Uremovich, an ABC member.
  2. Become an apprentice and obtain a journeyman license: These programs last three to five years and are a partnership arrangement between the student employee, the employer and the educational institution, Shmelzer says. This method enables apprentices to work full-time and also go to school.
  3. Attend a “boot camp” apprenticeship program: These intensive training camps provide skills to make someone “a safe productive employee without the time commitment of a multi-year apprenticeship program,” Shmelzer says. Learn basic skills like tool identification, how to bend a pipe and basic wiring skills. Most programs are 50 percent “book time” and 50 percent lab time, Uremovich says. You’re in the classroom for eight hours a day, five days a week for maybe a month or two to learn a specific trade without necessarily becoming a journeyman.
  4. Apply at a construction staffing service: This requires someone to already have a specific skill set, and the staffing service will put that person on different job sites where that skill is in demand. “And some of the staffing companies are also paying for training for craftsmen,” Uremovich says.

The shortage of tradesmen and craftsmen is only going to become much more exaggerated in the next several years as more baby boomers continue to retire, leaving a tremendous void in the construction and remodeling industries. Young people who are interested in building these skills will benefit from an industry in need.


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