Trade Jobs Sit Empty, While High School Grads Line Up For University

Garret Morgan (center) is training as an ironworker near Seattle and already has a job that pays him $50,000 a year.

Sy Bean/The Hechinger Report


Like most other American high school students, Garret Morgan had it drummed into him constantly: Go to college. Get a bachelor’s degree.

“All through my life it was, ‘if you don’t go to college you’re going to end up on the streets,’ ” Morgan said. “Everybody’s so gung-ho about going to college.”

So he tried it for a while. Then he quit and started training as an ironworker, which is what he is doing on a weekday morning in a nondescript high-ceilinged building with a concrete floor in an industrial park near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Morgan and several other men and women are dressed in work boots, hard hats and Carhartt’s, clipped to safety harnesses with heavy wrenches hanging from their belts. They’re being timed as they wrestle 600-pound I-beams into place.

Seattle is a forest of construction cranes, and employers are clamoring for skilled ironworkers. Morgan, who is 20, is already working on a job site when he isn’t at the Pacific Northwest Ironworkers shop. He gets benefits, including a pension, from employers at the job sites where he is training. And he is earning $28.36 an hour, or more than $50,000 a year, which is almost certain to steadily increase.

As for his friends from high school, “they’re still in college,” he said with a wry grin. “Someday maybe they’ll make as much as me.”

Raising alarms

While a shortage of workers is pushing wages higher in the skilled trades, the financial return from a bachelor’s degree is softening, even as the price — and the average debt into which it plunges students — keeps going up.

But high school graduates have been so effectively encouraged to get a bachelor’s that high-paid jobs requiring shorter and less expensive training are going unfilled. This affects those students and also poses a real threat to the economy.

“Parents want success for their kids,” said Mike Clifton, who teaches machining at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology, about 20 miles from Seattle. “They get stuck on [four-year bachelor’s degrees], and they’re not seeing the shortage there is in tradespeople until they hire a plumber and have to write a check.”

Ironworkers practice tying rebar at the Iron Workers Local Union #86 Administrative Offices in Tukwila, Wash.

Sy Bean/The Hechinger Report


In a new report, the Washington State Auditor found that good jobs in the skilled trades are going begging because students are being almost universally steered to bachelor’s degrees.

Among other things, the Washington auditor recommended that career guidance — including choices that require less than four years in college — start as early as the seventh grade.

“There is an emphasis on the four-year university track” in high schools, said Chris Cortines, who co-authored the report. Yet, nationwide, three out of 10 high school grads who go to four-year public universities haven’t earned degrees within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. At four-year private colleges, that number is more than 1 in 5.

“Being more aware of other types of options may be exactly what they need,” Cortines said. In spite of a perception “that college is the sole path for everybody,” he said, “when you look at the types of wages that apprenticeships and other career areas pay and the fact that you do not pay four years of tuition and you’re paid while you learn, these other paths really need some additional consideration.”

And it’s not just in Washington state.

Seventy-percent of construction companies nationwide are having trouble finding qualified workers, according to the Associated General Contractors of America; in Washington, the proportion is 80 percent.

There are already more trade jobs like carpentry, electrical, plumbing, sheet-metal work and pipe-fitting than Washingtonians to fill them, the state auditor reports. Many pay more than the state’s average annual wage of $54,000.

Construction, along with health care and personal care, will account for one-third of all new jobs through 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There will also be a need for new plumbers and new electricians. And, as politicians debate a massive overhaul of the nation’s roads, bridges and airports, the U.S. Department of Education reports that there will be 68 percent more job openings in infrastructure-related fields in the next five years than there are people training to fill them.

“The economy is definitely pushing this issue to the forefront,” said Amy Morrison Goings, president of the Lake Washington Institute of Technology, which educates students in these fields. “There isn’t a day that goes by that a business doesn’t contact the college and ask the faculty who’s ready to go to work.”

In all, some 30 million jobs in the United States that pay an average of $55,000 per year don’t require bachelor’s degrees, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.

Yet the march to bachelor’s degrees continues. And while people who get them are more likely to be employed and make more money than those who don’t, that premium appears to be softening; their median earnings were lower in 2015, when adjusted for inflation, than in 2010.

“There’s that perception of the bachelor’s degree being the American dream, the best bang for your buck,” said Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, an association of state officials who work in career and technical education. “The challenge is that in many cases it’s become the fallback. People are going to college without a plan, without a career in mind, because the mindset in high school is just, ‘Go to college.’ ”

Matthew Dickinson, 21, asks a classmate for help as they rebuild an automatic transmission in an auto repair technician program classes at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology.

Sy Bean/The Hechinger Report

It’s not that finding a job in the trades, or even manufacturing, means needing no education after high school. Most regulators and employers require certificates, certifications or associate degrees. But those cost less and take less time than earning a bachelor’s degree. Tuition and fees for in-state students to attend a community or technical college in Washington State, for example, come to less than half the cost of a four-year public university, the state auditor points out, and less than a tenth of the price of attending a private four-year college.

People with career and technical educations are also more likely to be employed than their counterparts with academic credentials, the U.S. Department of Education reports, and significantly more likely to be working in their fields of study.

Young people don’t seem to be getting that message. The proportion of high school students who earned three or more credits in occupational education — typically an indication that they’re interested in careers in the skilled trades — has fallen from 1 in 4 in 1990 to 1 in 5 now, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Washington is not the only state devoting attention to this. California is spending $200 million to improve the delivery of career and technical education. Iowa community colleges and businesses are collaborating to increase the number of “work-related learning opportunities,” including apprenticeships, job shadowing and internships. Tennessee has made its technical colleges free.

So severe are looming shortages of workers in the skilled trades in Michigan that Gov. Rick Snyder in February announced a $100 million proposal he likens to the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II.

At the federal level, there is bipartisan support for making Pell grants available for short-term job-training courses and not just university tuition. The Trump administration supports the idea.

For all the promises to improve vocational education, however, a principal federal source of money for it, called Tech-Prep, hasn’t been funded since 2011. A quarter of states last year reduced their own funding for postsecondary career and technical education, according to the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education.

The branding issue

Money isn’t the only issue, advocates for career and technical education say. An even bigger challenge is convincing parents that it leads to good jobs.

Darren Redford, 20, looks to his instructor after completing a connector mockup drill at the Iron Workers Local Union #86 Administrative Offices in Tukwila, Wash.

Sy Bean/The Hechinger Report

“They remember ‘voc-ed’ from what they were in high school, which is not necessarily what they aspire to for their own kids,” Kreamer said.

The parents “are definitely harder to convince because there is that stigma of the six-pack-totin’ ironworker,” said Greg Christiansen, who runs the ironworkers training program. Added Kairie Pierce, apprenticeship and college director for the Washington State Labor Council of the AFL-CIO: “It sort of has this connotation of being a dirty job. ‘It’s hard work — I want something better for my son or daughter.’ ”

Of the $200 million that California is spending on vocational education, $6 million is going into a campaign to improve the way people regard it. The Lake Washington Institute of Technology changed its name from Lake Washington Technical College, said Goings, its president, to avoid being stereotyped as a vocational school.

These perceptions fuel the worry that, if students are urged as early as the seventh grade to consider the trades, then low-income, first-generation and ethnic and racial minority high school students will be channeled into blue-collar jobs while wealthier and white classmates are pushed by their parents to get bachelor’s degrees.

“When CTE was vocational education, part of the reason we had a real disinvestment from the system was because we were tracking low-income and minority kids into these pathways,” Kreamer said. “There is this tension between, do you want to focus on the people who would get the most benefit from these programs, and — is that tracking?”

Amy Morrison Goings, president of the Lake Washington Institute of Technology, says, “There isn’t a day that goes by that a business doesn’t contact the college and ask the faculty who’s ready to go to work.”

Sy Bean/The Hechinger Report

In a quest for prestige and rankings, and to bolster real-estate values, high schools also like to emphasize the number of their graduates who go on to four-year colleges and universities.

Jessica Bruce followed that path, enrolling in college after high school for one main reason: because she was recruited to play fast-pitch softball. “I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” she said.

She never earned her degree and now, she’s an apprentice ironworker, making $32.42 an hour, or more than $60,000 a year, while continuing her training. At 5-foot-2, “I can run with the big boys,” she said, laughing.

As for whether anyone looks down on her for not having a bachelor’s degree, Bruce doesn’t particularly care.

“The misconception,” she said, “is that we don’t make as much money.”

And then she laughed again.

Taylor Fawcett, 23, moves a column during a connector mockup drill at the Iron Workers Local Union #86 Administrative Offices in Tukwila, Wash.

Sy Bean/The Hechinger Report

Maine School of Masonry receives hand carved stone, appears in national magazine

By Ramona du Houx

In January, Rich Ciarcia, a board member of the Maine School of Masonry, presented a hand carved stone that reads, Maine School of Masonry to the founder of the school, Stephen D. Mitchell. Ciarcia meticulously carved the inscription, and is a graduate of MSM. The monument will be displayed in the entrance of the school and serves as a testament to the craftsmanship the school inspires.

“It was such a wonderful surprise,” said Mitchell, the school’s founder and director. “We never expected it and are humbled by Rich’s commitment to our school.”

Recently, state Rep. Tom Saviello hosted Mitchell on his local Mt. Blue T.V. show “Talkin Maine,” to get the word out about what the Maine School of Masonry has to offer students who want to succeed in the craft. There is a shortage of masons throughout the United States. A 2015 study by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 55 percent of masonry contractors reported having trouble filling jobs.

Click here to see the show:

The Maine School of Masonry has been teaching students for more than 13 years, training future masons in the timeless art. The school also lines up jobs for graduates at nine businesses. Their unique Historic Restoration and Preservation program takes students to work on sites listed as National Registered Historic buildings. Currently these classes are working on restoring Fort Knox near Prospect and the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta.

Chandler Ellis is currently enrolled in the school’s historic restorative masonry program. Ellis is taking advantage of work opportunities provided by the school, earning $18 per hour while learning on the job.

“It makes me proud to think I can make a difference restoring a 200 to 300 year-old building, so it’ll be here for future generations,” said Ellis.

The on-the-job learning experience for students at these historic landmarks is unsurpassed as they’re trained by master masons, who have years of experience and insights into the craft that they are willing to share. It’s the only course of its kind in America.

The M.S.M founder Stephen Mitchell on local T.V


The school’s programs have become nationally known and an article, “Rebuilding the Masonry Labor Force: Good wages. Excellent job prospects. Opportunities to earn while you’re in training,” by Jim Cook appeared in the Pro-Masonry Guide magazine. To read more please follow the link:

For more information about the school please visit:

2 Responses »

  1. So glad the Maine School of Masonry is getting some good recognition. It is quite a place. Steve is a great
    instructor too. I have seen some of the learning projects at the school, and they are wonderful.

    Congratulations Steve.  Carol MC

  2. An amazing program, a dedicated leader and a wonderful opportunity for those interested in learning and preserving this skill. It’s a win-win for all…the students learn and the buildings stand tall for a longer period, allowing future generations to see and preserve our history…I’m glad and proud that Steve Mitchell and the Maine School of Masonry chose Avon for it’s home.

Maine School of Masonry receives hand-carved stone, is on TV


AVON — Rich Ciarcia, a board member of the Maine School of Masonry, presented a hand-carved stone that reads “Maine School of Masonry” to the founder of the school, Stephen D. Mitchell in January.

Ciarcia, who meticulously carved the inscription, is a graduate of the school. The monument will be displayed in the entrance of the school and serve as a testament to the craftsmanship the school inspires.

Maine State Rep. Tom Saviello hosted Mitchell on his local Mt. Blue TV show, “Talkin Maine,” to get the word out about what the Maine School of Masonry has to offer students who want to succeed in the craft.

The Historic Restoration and Preservation Program takes students to work on sites listed as National Registered Historic Buildings. Currently these classes are working on restoring Fort Knox near Prospect and the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta.

For more information about the school, visit

Daniel Wuorio at work repointing at the Kennebec Arsanel copy

Daniel Wuorio is at work repointing at the Kennebec Arsenal.

Masonry promotes healthy lifestyles

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By Dori James

If you enjoy weight lifting, functional fitness, and an overall sense of accomplishment, Masonry is a great career path. Masonry requires good physical health— key to longevity in the profession.

Masons have been around for hundreds of years building structures that stand the test of time. In order to stand the test of time as a mason you need to keep yourself in top physical condition.

The scope of masonry requires, climbing, lifting, squatting, pushing, pulling, balance, and endurance. Masonry has gotten a bad rap for the stress it puts on the body, but if the mason takes physical fitness seriously and works at it masonry can be a satisfying healthy career and a lucrative one.

Many people spend time at the gym to achieve the physique that a mason comes by naturally doing the day to day physical labor that is required. Exercise is not only important for your heart, lungs, and muscles, but also for your brain. Research shows that exercise can help keep your mind sharp, promote feelings of alertness and well-being, and wards off depression and anxiety. Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that leaves people feeling happier and more relaxed.

On a day-to-day basis for a mason the work is the exercise. It is also what a mason does while he or she is off the job that makes a difference, eating right, keeping hydrated, a good workout program, and a series of stretching exercises are vitally important for the profession of masonry.

Many masons graduate and go on to starting their own business, there are many benefits to that as well. Owning your own business is a satisfying and great for your mental health.

  • You get to make the decisions,
  • You get to build something,
  • You get to help people,
  • You have the option of a more flexible lifestyle.
  • You can find your own work/life balance,
  • You choose the people you work with,
  • You can challenge yourself,
  • You can follow your passion,
  • You can connect with your clients,
  • You can give back to your community,
  • You feel pride in building something of your own and
  • You just might change the world.

Masonry gets you out from behind a desk and a sedentary lifestyle.

Using your creativity is healthy for the mind! It relieves stress, increases and renews brain function, can help prevent Alzheimers, and improves one’s mood.

There can be nothing more creative than a beautiful stone or brick fireplace! People don’t look at the electrical work or the plumbing in a house. They tend to gravitate toward the beauty of masonry.

Masonry is a great career choice. I highly recommend it.

Dori James


Maine School of Masonry-Rebuilding the Masonry Labor Force

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Article in the Pro Masonry Guide By Jim Cook

Good wages. Excellent job prospects. Opportunities to earn while you’re in training.

Masonry jobs offer a quick ticket to the middle class for workers and the opportunity to see real, tangible results from laboring each day. Employers are struggling to find bricklayers, and a growing demand for new construction is putting even more pressure on the industry to recruit and train new workers. To replenish the pool of skilled masonry labor force, the industry must combat years of state neglect of career technical programs and a societal bias against masonry labor force.

Renewed investment in career technical programs at the high school and post-secondary level, efforts by contractors and organized labor are all working to address the shortfall of masonry labor force, but the challenge posed by years of declining recruitment is steep.

Growing demand, shrinking labor pool

The construction industry has a dire need for more skilled masonry workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for masonry workers is expected to grow by 12 percent, adding 34,500 jobs between 2016 and 2026. Growth in the industry is being driven by construction required to meet the needs of a growing population.

The number of new masons entering the market isn’t enough to meet this demand. In fact, it can’t even meet current demand. Masonry contractors are having trouble filling the open positions, and retirements among Baby Boomers are exacerbating the problem, as this generation makes up a huge segment of the current masonry labor force.

“The average age of a brick layer is 54,” says Jay Smith, president of the Bricklayers Union Local 8 of the Southeast.

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The scarcity of masons is part of a wider shortage of skilled construction labor nationwide. A 2015 study by the Associated General Contractors of America found that nearly 80 percent of the businesses the organization surveyed struggle to find skilled laborers. In the survey, 55 percent of masonry contractors reported having trouble filling jobs.

According to the BLS, the median pay for masonry workers in the United States is $41,330 per year, and the top 10 percent of workers earn around $74,310 per year or more. Brick masons and block masons have the highest median wages of masonry workers – around $49,250. Most masonry training programs allow students to become qualified skilled laborers in two years or less, and some provide job opportunities for students while they are training.

With good pay, a quick path to becoming qualified and plentiful employment prospects, it seems that masonry should be an appealing career path for many young workers. Years of declining funding for masonry training programs caused by an increased focus on college preparatory courses have also reduced the number of high school students exposed to the trade. The Great Recession also forced many skilled laborers out of the construction industry, and many are not returning as they’ve found other opportunities.

There’s also the fact that masonry isn’t for just anyone. The trade requires mental discipline, physical strength and endurance that not all people have.

“Masonry is a very lucrative profession, but it’s also a very labor-intensive profession,” Steve Mitchell, founder of the Maine School of Masonry, says.

Starting at an early age

After spending years as a masonry contractor and teaching masonry in public schools, Mitchell started the Maine School of Masonry in 2005. The private, post-secondary program offers a nine-month general masonry program and a nine-month program in restorative masonry. The restorative program teaches specialized skills for masonry restoration projects involving historical buildings, an in-demand skill in the Northeast.

Mitchell says he started the program out of frustration with a lack of investment in career technical programs by public education. Mitchell says many students could benefit from training in masonry and construction trades, but for many years those opportunities have been few and far between in public education. Mitchell says societal changes and a decline in home handiwork has also contributed to a drop off in students taking interest in construction-related jobs.

“Dads used to spend their weekends with their children working on home projects,” he says. “Kids today don’t do that. When I visit some schools, about 75 percent of the kids didn’t know how to hit the head of a nail with a hammer.”

The Maine School of Masonry trains a handful of students each year, but Mitchell hopes to continue to grow the program. Mitchell says his students can quickly find work after graduation.

“If you’re an A-student, you can get a pick-up truck and start your own residential masonry business,” he says. “My B-students need to work for another masonry contractor for a while.”

Chandler Ellis, of Vienna, Maine is currently enrolled at the Maine School of Masonry. Ellis, 19, joined the program directly out of high school.

“I’m a firm believer in learning a trade,” he says. “I think it’s important to have a skill. Masonry seemed attractive because it combines creative and practical skills.”

Ellis is taking advantage of work opportunities provided by the school, earning $18 per hour while learning on the job. Ellis is currently enrolled in the school’s restorative masonry program.

“I’m really appreciative of history and I think I can make a difference in helping 200- and 300-year-old buildings. There’s a real sense of pride in doing that.”

Mitchell says that his program and resurgent career technical programs in high school will help fill the ranks of masons, but if the industry really wants to recruit a new generation of masonry workers, they need to extend their outreach to younger students.

Mitchell conducts short-term workshops at elementary and middle schools in Maine. Mitchell spends about a week in each school, teaching students masonry basics. Mitchell says middle school is the perfect time to help students develop an interest in masonry.

“Sixth to eighth-graders are still interested in building things,” he says. “That’s where the push needs to be.”

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Decline and revival of career technical education

In the past, career technical programs enjoyed strong government support. The first federal law funding vocational programs passed in 1917, years before each state made education compulsory for children. In the 1980s, career tech programs began to decline as states focused more on preparing students for college. States increased the number of core academic courses required of students and reduced funding for career technical programs. A social stigma against career technical programs also arose, as educators and popular culture reinforced the idea that a four-year college degree was the only path to prosperity for students.

These changes took a toll on high school career technical programs. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of career technical credits earned by high school students in the United States dropped by 14 percent, according to The Brookings Institute.

The tide is beginning to turn, however, as policy makers have seen that unfilled, good-paying jobs exist in skilled labor and are changing priorities to address that gap. In 2015, 39 states passed 125 new laws aimed at revitalizing their career technical programs. Montana doubled its funding for high school career technical programs, while Nevada tripled its state budget for these programs.

Jocquette Carroll teaches masonry at Dothan Technical Center, a career technical center in Dothan, Alabama. Carroll’s program is one of a handful of masonry programs in the state. Carroll says that after years of decline, the state is beginning to invest more in career technical programs.

“Alabama has been pushing more funding toward construction trades,” he says. “We’re ahead of some other states in masonry, but there are some that are ahead. North Carolina and Virginia are pushing masonry.”

Career technical education can have a major impact on students’ employment outcomes. A study of a nationally representative sample of 12- to 17-year-olds that began in 1997 and continues to track this cohort found that career technical education participation is linked with higher wages. The study found that students who took upper-level coursework in career technical programs tend to have higher wages.

Carroll says he has a wide range of students in his classes, including both college and career-bound students.

Torreon Underwood takes honors academic courses and is enrolled in Carroll’s masonry class. Underwood plans to go to college but says he wanted to learn masonry skills as a secondary career choice.

“I don’t want to be a person who has to be worried about how they’re going to earn a living,” he says.

James Ward, also a student at DTC, plans to pursue a career in masonry. Ward says that without the program, he probably would never have considered a career in masonry.

“I think it’s good experience,” he says. “I’m learning new ways of building and how to calculate distance between blocks. It’s a good opportunity.”

Students in Carroll’s program can earn National Center for Construction Education and Research Certification. Carroll says students who complete his program are prepared for entry level jobs in the masonry workforce, where they can begin at between $15 and $25 per hour, a good starting salary for the area. Carroll says that the potential to earn a solid starting salary straight out of high school is appealing to many of his students.

“We have seen an increase in the number of students in my class,” he says. “I have about 42 students and half of them are honors students.”

Organized labor and community colleges

Labor unions and community colleges are also playing a big role in producing qualified new workers for the masonry profession. Organized labor has a vested interest in replenishing its ranks to allow unions to continue to provide contractors and construction firms with a reliable pool of skilled masonry labor force.

Many community college programs work with labor unions to provide training to students. In Ohio, Cuyahoga Community College partners with Bricklayers Local Union 5 to provide a bricklayers apprenticeship program. The program has been running since 1997 and enrolls about 150 apprentices each year. Students take general education classes at the college and attend technical classes at an off-site center run by the union.

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The Cuyahoga Community College program prepares students to earn an associate’s degree in bricklaying and allied crafts and to earn journey-level status in bricklaying. University officials say the program provides excellent career prospects to students, and that the partnership between the union and the college ensures that students get the academic and practical education they need to succeed.

“The demand for masons in Northeast Ohio and the overall state is good as all apprentices and journeymen are employed,” John Horton, media relations manager for Cuyahoga Community College, says. “The outlook for continued employment is good for the next several quarters, according to those in the industry.”

Union participation isn’t as high as it was in years past; public policy and societal changes have chipped away at membership. Ed Navarro, south region director for the International Union of Bricklayers, says that’s creating a problem for contractors and construction firms, who may be able to find laborers, but may not always be able to find skilled ones.

“Union training has always been the best training,” Navarro says.

Marketing is critical to efforts by unions and educational institutions to recruit new talent. Bob Arnold is the national director of apprenticeship and training for the International Masonry Training and Education Foundation, which provides training, certifications, and continuing education to members of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. Arnold says meeting young people where they are – reaching out to them using the mediums they’re familiar with – is important to recruiting new workers. Arnold says his organization has increased their online marketing efforts and have pitched the teamwork aspect of masonry to Millennials and younger students – who are more collaborative that generations past.

“We try to emphasize that you’re part of a team and that you’re building something tangible that you can take pride in,” Arnold says.

Private industry, public education institutions and labor unions are all contributing to efforts to replenish the pool of skilled masonry labor force, and these efforts are creating results. Continued support for training and recruitment efforts is critical as the industry faces a tight deadline and a difficult challenge.

“In the next five to 10 years we’re going to have to replace 40 percent of the masonry labor force,” Smith says.

Jim Cook is a freelance writer based in Dothan, Ala.