Lots of Talk About the Trades, Not Much Evidence

Freddie deBoer
5 min readNov 21, 2020
Image via the National Archives

As I was writing my book, I looked for evidence of a pretty common trope, the idea that we are sending too many people to college compared to trade school. It would be perfect for my argument, which among other things is that the preeminence of college in 21st century life (both economic and cultural) is a bad thing that creates perverse incentives. I had done some research earlier in life that seemed inconclusive, but I was eager to have the very direct and practical bullet point “Send More Students to Trade School” in my list of recommendations. So I was really keyed up to find out that, aha! We need to produce fewer eggheads and more real workers.

After months of looking, I gave up. I could not find responsibly-generated evidence demonstrating this effect. And I found some fairly persuasive evidence arguing otherwise. But the idea has legs.

As people rightly lament the state of the American economy, a rigged game in which all but the wealthiest play the role of the sap, many imagine better paths they could have taken. Lately, it seems, this has caused a lot of people to say that we should turn to the skilled trades instead of college, to send more people to trade school to learn to build and maintain buildings. Conservatives mocking what they see as overeducated liberals tell them they should have gotten into the trades, not the liberal arts; people struggling under their student loan debt lament what has been, for them, a bad deal so far. For many the trades are the path not taken.

The college wage and employment premiums remain robust despite public affirmation on Twitter to the contrary. But I don’t want to argue about that right now. I want to think carefully about this claim about the trades. Where’s the evidence? Why has this meme sprung up?

Honestly, I think it just sounds good. It taps into resentment towards college that is both old (ivory tower stereotypes) and new (I did what I was told, got a degree, and I’m poor). The trades have a great deal of romanticism bound up in them, the romanticism of working with your hands and actually building something! Which is fine, and no doubt these are noble professions. But what’s that got to do with public education policy, or whether it’s a good idea for any individual to try to build a career in the trades?

In 2017 I wrote up a study looking at precisely the question of trades vs college. A quote:

Most important to our purpose, while individuals with a general education are initially (normalized to an age of 16 years) 6.9 percentage points less likely to be employed than those with a vocational education, the gap in employment rates narrows by 2.1 percentage points every ten years. This implies that by age 49, on average, individuals completing a general education are more likely to be employed than individuals completing a vocational education.

In other words, people in the trades have an initial benefit in terms of their rate of employment, but this rate shrinks consistently and by middle age disappears. Is this particularly strong argument against the trades? No. But it should kill the buzz of people who seem to think that the trades offer greater security in employability than college. As I summarized in 2017,

What’s going on with these trends? The suggestion of the authors seems correct to me: vocational training is likely more specific and job-focused than general ed, which means that its students are more ready to jump right into work. But over time, technological and economic changes change which skills and competencies are valued by employers, and the general education students have been “taught to learn,” meaning that they are more adaptable and can acquire new and valuable skills.

To talk of the trades as a safe harbor just does not seem defensible. Look at this list of best and worst job security by occupation. What are some of the occupations on the Least Job Security list?

  • Painters, construction and maintenance
  • Cement masons, concrete finishers, and terrazzo workers
  • Operating engineers and other construction equipment operators
  • Structural iron and steel workers
  • Construction laborers
  • Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons
  • Roofers

This does not look good for the trades. And while I don’t have solid data on this, it certainly stands to reason that the trades are deeply exposed to the whims of the local real estate and housing markets, with the devastating collapse of housing in 2009 wreaking havoc on these professions. These conditions are also likely highly region-dependent.

Look, some people are doing very well in the trades, just as some people flourish with PhDs in comparative lit. I’m sure your uncle’s HVAC business really is doing great. But we have to be rigorous and ask what the conditions are for the average entrant.

Yes, I would definitely like to be a unionized mason working in Manhattan. I would much less rather be an undocumented non-union mason in Arizona. Conditions outside of your control will have vast influence on your earnings. And the thing about the New York union job is that you can’t get it, assuming you don’t have just the right connections. Look it’s not a secret and it’s not nefarious — trade unions create artificial scarcity to bargain up their earning potential. And if you aren’t union in New York you can’t get the good union jobs making union scale which means you can’t get the experience and make the connections that enable you to continue to get the good jobs. Barriers for entry make for more attractive employment conditions; that’s why people go to college, too.

I’ve said many times in the past: chasing the next big profession is almost always a bad idea. The perceived need for more pharmacists led to a glut of new pharmacy schools and a glut of new pharmacists, all of whom were left scrambling to compete against each other. Petrochemical engineering looked like the job of the future, until the oil market collapsed, and then it wasn’t. Do you know how long it takes to become a petrochemical engineer? You can’t predict the labor market! Certainly not with the kinds of time horizons that you need when it takes two or four or six or ten years to get trained. It’s just not a sensible way to pursue your career.

What is the “safe harbor”? Well, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who are good at this, says that easily the fastest growing sector of the economy is the service sector. There are some high-paying jobs in that sector, but many of them are not highly paying at all. This includes what I believe is the number one fastest-growing profession, home health aide, where numbers are swelling to keep up with a rapidly greying population. They make, on average, a little more than $11.00 an hour. I don’t know. Maybe it’s time for a brand new economic bargain.