Promoting skilled trades within the STEM fields

Written by: Lisa Stelzner

Primary Source: Daily Dose of Science Blog

I used to be biased because I was uninformed, but before I finished college, I thought that every teenager should aspire to attend a four-year college to obtain a great career and become an educated member of society.  In the past few decades, I think this has been a common belief, and it is what almost all teachers and parents are coming to expect from their students/children.  From my fortunate, middle-class upbringing, I think everyone I knew my age or younger went to college, with the majority going straight to a university and the rest transferring to one after starting off at a community college.  It wasn’t until after college that I met some people who did not go to college, but went to a trade school instead or took an apprenticeship and became members of the skilled labor force.  I started to hear mentions in the popular media on how, perhaps, college education isn’t the best fit for everyone, and some people prefer to learn a trade, such as how to be a plumber, auto mechanic, construction worker, hairstylist, professional chef or baker, etc.

Currently, there is a lack of many types of skilled workers in the U.S., such as the article linked below from a few days ago discusses. There has been a sharp increase in the need for welders in the U.S. with an increase in manufacturing and industry, but there are not enough trained welders to fill the need. Experienced welders can even make pretty good money, and even more with further math education.  “Some students can expect to make a lot more, particularly those learning trigonometry in Hobart’s advanced pipe-layout class. The math will come in handy when they’re welding pipeline along rough terrain or running pipe into a refinery or pump station at unusual angles.”–the-us-is-running-out-of-welders

The reason I decided to blog about this topic is due to a TED talk I heard with Mike Rowe yesterday, the host of the TV show “Dirty Jobs.”  In the show, he spends a day (or more) learning and working on the type of “dirty,” hands-on jobs that many university graduates would never consider working in (for example, cleaning septic tanks).  These jobs do need to get done, though, for everything in our modern-day world to work and run smoothly, and Mike Rowe has helped remove some of the stigma of doing these jobs and showcase the good people who do these for their careers.

I have always thought Mike Rowe seemed like a great guy, but I was surprised and excited to hear that he started his own foundation to provide scholarships for technical trades education.  When I checked out his website, I saw that there was a post and press release about how the mikeroweWorks foundation will be creating a Skilled Trades Pavilion at the USA Science & Engineering Festival this April to promote skilled trades.

The president of the mikeroweWorks foundation said, “Innovation and entrepreneurship are also components of many great STEM careers, and we want people to understand the role of skilled labor in those areas as well. With the help of the many companies attending, including the trade schools that mikeroweWORKS has already partnered with, I think we can make a very persuasive case for a host of great STEM opportunities that start with mastering a useful skill.”

This got me thinking about how a lot of our “big science” experiments could not be completed successfully without the help of skilled workers. Agricultural and restoration studies need equipment operators to plow and plant fields, oceanic research needs the many skilled workers that maintain and guide large research vessels, and even university laboratory space can only serve its purpose by having good plumbers and electricians and maintenance workers to repair it.  Some of the skilled tradespeople involved in experiments may not think of themselves as having a STEM career, but they play very important roles, and with further education and training, some of these workers could become more directly involved in research, which I think is really cool.

At this point in my life, I am very supportive of teenagers going to a trade school if they would like to join the skilled labor force, and I think there are some great career opportunities out there for them.

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Lisa Stelzner
I'm a plant biology PhD student studying monarch butterflies in Michigan, but I'm interested in lots of other types of science, too. I am interested in how breeding monarch butterflies choose their habitat based on floral species richness and abundance. Few studies have been conducted on optimal foraging theory when it involves an organism searching for two different kinds of resources, and butterflies are an ideal study system to investigate this, since many species are ovipositing specialists and only lay eggs on one species of hostplant, but are feeding generalists and nectar from a broad variety of flowering forbs.