Skyrocketing College Costs Are Benefitting The Trades – But Not Enough

College costs are rising and enrollments are declining. But skilled trade jobs are still facing a shortage of workers. Why is this happening and how can we start to change the pace?

Jill Caren
By Jill Caren
Updated January 29th, 2024

As millions of young Americans head back to campus each year, the college dream is not what it used to be. University students nationwide are facing skyrocketing college costs and are struggling to pay up. Parents and students are now considering alternative options like trade school or community college.

In 1979, the average cost to attend a four-year college full-time was $11,505 annually, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2021-22, the total price including tuition, fees, room and board, and adjustments for inflation — increased to $30,031.

That’s a 161% increase in college costs from 1979 to 2022. 

Decline Of College Enrollment 

Between costs of attendance and the lack of return on investment in salaries being paid, undergraduate college enrollment is declining. The slide in the college attendance rate since 2018 is the steepest on record, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and attitudes about postsecondary education are changing.

As of 2019, roughly half of U.S. adults considered a college education “very important,” according to a Gallup poll — down from 70% in 2013.

That number has further declined, with four-in-ten parents saying it’s extremely important that their children earn a college degree in 2023. 

Attitudes about the necessity of college are certainly shifting — and seem to reflect an uptick in trade school programs over the past few years. 

Mechanic and repair trade programs saw an enrollment increase of 11.5% from the spring of 2021 to 2022, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Enrollment grew 19.3 in construction trades and 12.7% in culinary programs.

Rising Costs of College

Costs remain at the core of the discussion around college and as a barrier to entry for many. Seventy-five percent of Americans believe people do not attend college because they cannot afford it, according to a survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

With student loan debt totaling more than $1.75 trillion in the U.S.,  according to the Federal Reserve, many students are disincentivized from pursuing a college education. 

Compared to a traditional four-year degree, trade programs are often more affordable. 

According to Indeed, two-year programs at private trade schools average $15,549 and offer a more direct path to a career. 

Parents are willing to consider what the trades have to offer. 

Jonathan Sanchez, co-founder of the financial literacy resource Parent Portfolio and father of two, is ready to support his children if they head into the trades.  “We’re small business owners and already teaching our kids the power of being your own boss, controlling your own time, and not being capped on how much money you can make,” he said. “Another financial benefit is avoiding the sizable amount of college debt.”

The Increasing Skilled Trade Gap

Despite surging demand for skilled workers, supply doesn’t quite measure up to demand. Even with lower enrollment in colleges, the skilled trade gap is not slowing down.

According to reporting by NPR, the application rate for technical jobs like plumber and electrician has dropped by 49% between 2020 and 2022. 

While the number of open trade jobs has continued to grow, the number of students interested in applying for them hasn’t. Aging workforces and a “massive” shortage of skilled workers pose an issue for a number of trades, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Matt DiBara, CEO of The Contractor Consultants, an outsourced service tailored for construction companies, pointed out the social stigma around the skilled trades.

If you go out with your friends and tell them you’re involved in a skilled trade like plumbing, there’s no excitement or prestige associated with it,” he said. “In fact, it’s almost as if you should be embarrassed about it as if you’ve somehow made a wrong choice in your career path.

However, the current skilled worker shortage has been decades in the making.

In the 1980s and ’90s, career and technical education saw a stark decline, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). As academic requirements for high school graduation increased, the trades were quickly devalued, and vocational courses were shuffled off the board.

The decades-long push for high school graduates to prioritize academia has certainly succeeded. Although Gen Z is on track to be the most well-educated generation yet, the lack of skilled workers and tradespeople is systematically concerning.

Skilled Trade Misconceptions Play a Role

While 85% of young people value a skilled trade career, only 16% are likely to consider such a career, according to Stanley Black & Decker’s inaugural Makers Index report.

Misconceptions about the trades seem to drive the lack of incoming youth, according to Stanley Black & Decker. Pay progression and quality of life are vital to young students — but there’s a widespread misunderstanding about what, exactly, the trades have to offer.

Young people severely underestimate the earning potential of work in the trades. According to the Makers Index report, only 42% of young people think skilled trade workers earn at least $50,000. 

But the reality is that half of current skilled trade workers with less than a decade’s experience earn at least $50,000 to start. Many experienced skilled trade workers earn over $100,000 per year.

According to the report, another cited factor included the alleged poor fit of skills due to “outdated perceptions” of what a skilled trades career entails. According to the surveyed students, skilled trades rarely worked with cutting-edge technology — although, in reality, most of those in the workforce say they do work with cutting-edge tech.

Improving Skilled Trade Awareness

A critical component of the skilled trade gap is lack of exposure to individuals in trade professions. The misconceptions about trade work stem from a systematic lack of education about what the trades offer and introductions to those doing the work.

“Educators at the middle and high school level are not promoting trades as an option to students and parents,” said Brian Keating, Director of the Joint Apprenticeship Training Fund at United Service Workers Union

Ultimately, exposure to trades and tradespeople is vital to supporting future generations of skilled workers, said Jean Eddy, President of the American Student Assistance

“In the middle school years, beyond exploring careers using digital tools like ASA Futurescape, opportunities include job shadows, worksite visits, career fairs, and “meet a professional” experiences,” she said. “These opportunities allow a young person to uncover the wide variety of career possibilities in front of them and begin to think about what might align with their interests.”

Solving the skilled workers’ shortage will likely be a decades-long quest. 

Still, the trades aren’t entirely on their own — efforts to revitalize career and technical education are growing nationwide. 

In Bakersfield, California, one high school district has added more than 200,000 square feet of space dedicated to technical-training facilities. In Florida, Lively Technical College is working with local high schools to encourage a dual-enrollment program for students. 

A bipartisan Arizona bill hopes to further incentivize dual enrollment across the state for students and schools alike. 

As long as the trades are consistently incentivized, promoted, and discussed, students will be encouraged to take up vocations and skilled work and learn how deeply fulfilling a career in the trades can be.

Jill Caren is an international SEO consultant and founder of 2Dogs Media. She is also a trainer, journalist, and speaker who helps brands increase their organic search visibility, traffic, and conversions. She is also the co-founder of Blue Collar Brain, a resource for those looking to enter a trade career.

She has been featured on MSN, Wealth of Geeks, Hubspot, SEO Powersuite, and other publications for her work as an SEO and advocate for skilled trades.