Figuring out what to do with your life is a challenge for anyone. Students are often told to get their bachelor's degree and find their passion and they'll eventually be rewarded by landing their dream job.
For most people, it's not that simple.
Along the way, Isis Harris in Portland, Ore., says, "I kept hitting walls and I kept running into obstacles." Then she took a course designed to sample different jobs in construction, and while wiring a light bulb, a switch flipped in her head. Almost five years later, Isis is finishing up her apprenticeship to become a certified electrician.
She didn't aim to be in the construction industry, she says, but "once I did and it clicked so well, I had no intention of ever looking back on anything else."
There are lots of jobs out there like Isis's, that don't require a bachelor's degree. Whether you're looking for your first job or changing paths, here's what to know about getting a job in the trades.
You can make good money working in the trades — and jobs are in demand
"There are thousands of jobs that go unfilled every year because they can't find qualified people with both the skills and the interest to pursue them," says Carrie Akins, director for career and technology education for Calvert County Public Schools in Maryland.
Many of these jobs aren't just available — they also pay well. With an associate degree, air traffic controllers made a median salary of $130,420 per year in 2020. Some other lucrative jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree? Construction managers ($97,180), aircraft mechanics ($66,680), plumbers ($56,330) and firefighters ($52,500). And those are just the median salaries. Depending on where you live, you could make more.
Isis Harris is constantly trying to get this message out to as many people as she can. "Earning your own money and being able to take care of yourself and not have to depend on anybody else is so important when you're trying to put your life together," she says.
It's not four-year college vs. the trades
Getting an associate degree, doing an apprenticeship program or getting a certificate doesn't mean you can't get a bachelor's degree later — or vice versa. Nearly a million students currently enrolled in community college classes already have a bachelor's degree.
"College is a necessary tool for some careers, and it's a great way to continue to learn. But not every great career requires college," says Carrie Akins. Getting a four-year degree isn't a bad thing, she says, "but you just want to make sure that you are taking the time to really think about why you're going."
Think about who you want to be
Jobs shape our lives in lots of different ways. So as you're thinking about what you want to do for work, it's equally important to think about how you envision your life.
Michael Torrence, president of Motlow State Community College in Tennessee, says his advice to his students — and his daughter, who is thinking about her path right now — is to ask themselves some questions: "Where do you want to live? How do you want to live? Where do you want to take vacation? How do you want to dress? Who do you want your friends to be? What do you want to drive?"
These are big questions, but there's a good chance you have some idea. Would you prefer working outdoors or in an office? Isis Harris says she did an honest assessment of her skills: "What is it that I like about work? What are my strengths when I'm working? You know, what are my strengths just as an individual, period?" She realized pretty quickly that she wanted to work with her hands — and use her knowledge. She found that as an electrician.
A note on "following your passion"
Lots of people are told to get out there and find their passion — but Mike Rowe, the host of the TV show Dirty Jobs, says that's bad advice. If you're heading out into the world in search of your passion, he says, "then you might as well go out into the world and start looking for your soul mate. It's a needle in a haystack. Doesn't mean you're not going to find it. But in this world, I'm all for stacking the deck in my favor." Instead of waiting for your dream job, he suggests going where the opportunities are and building from there. The big lesson from Dirty Jobs, Rowe says, "was don't follow your passion. Bring it with you wherever you go, but don't follow it around."
Make a plan
There are several ways to get into the trades.
You can get an apprenticeship, like Isis Harris did. Employers, local trade associations and other professional groups, such as unions, can connect you to training programs.
Community colleges also offer lots of great programs to catapult you into a career in the trades. Look at their job placement rates to see how well their students land jobs after they graduate.
Most community colleges are inexpensive, while for-profit trade schools have higher price tags. To pay, start by filling out the FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Once you land in a program, there will be hurdles. You might change your path, stop and start again. That's OK.
The podcast portion of this episode was produced by Andee Tagle. The digital version was written by Clare Lombardo.
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