- Oh, this is dangerous.
(metal rattling) To truly live, like, in America.
You need to make at least 55,000, 60,000.
That's just like, to be able to survive.
(suspenseful music) - [Philip] Luis has been an HVAC technician for eight years, a skilled trade that involves the installation and repair of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.
- I don't know how people do it on minimum wage, and I feel so bad about it.
Power's not passing through.
But I know people that are still in McDonald's to this day, that when I used to work there 14 years ago.
- [Philip] America is currently suffering from a shortage of skilled tradespeople, especially in the construction related fields.
- There's no power.
Now we gotta go find the breaker.
You know where the breaker box is?
- [Woman] Yeah.
- All right, I got it, I got it Fez.
I try to recruit people, 'cause I want them to get out that dark space.
I can't say HVAC did bad to me.
And I came out pretty good.
And I came out of the dark.
- The meaning of the word tradesperson can vary, but typically it refers to a worker with a specific set of skills and knowledge, usually acquired through a vocational school and apprenticeship, and often requiring a license to practice.
- The term can encompass a wide variety of fields, but when most people think of trades, they think of those involved in the construction and maintenance of homes and buildings, like plumbers, electricians, and HVAC technicians.
- These careers have been around a long time.
So it might seem odd to discuss them on a show called Future of Work.
But America's relationship with skilled trades, has changed drastically in the last few decades.
- I grew up in north Philadelphia, probably the worst parts of Philadelphia.
They actually call it Badlands.
A lot of drugs, a lot of fighting, a lot of crime, robberies.
Just being a kid, in that kind of environment, you go numb.
Meaning that when somebody gets hurt, you're not like, oh my God.
And it's not, it's not to sound heartless, but it happens so much that you don't... it's like normal.
- Yeah, it was rough.
It was really rough.
It was a nightmare.
As a parent, it was really scary.
I didn't know what to do.
And I really thought I was going to lose him to the streets.
- I wanted to be like the cool kids.
And cool kids, they didn't do good in school.
I just thought there was other more important things, like what was going on outside.
I barely made it out of high school.
Did it bother you that I didn't go to college when I got out of high school?
- Because I wanted you to be a better person than me.
Because I was thrown out of high school because I got pregnant with you.
And the college thing is what kind of bothers me the most.
- I guess the 12 years of high school, middle school, elementary school, to go back to school for four years.
And a lot of people go to school.
And when they're probably a year in, two years in, that's not what they want to do.
So now you're stuck with the student loan, you're stuck with the debt.
And I was like, yeah, I don't need school.
- Luis's misgivings aren't unfounded.
Students from low income families are far less likely to finish a four year program.
This is true, regardless of academic achievement.
- Meaning, it's more likely the financial burdens that jeopardize their graduation.
- Factor in rising tuition and crushing debt loans, it's no wonder many people like Luis might see college as more of a risky gamble than a sure path to success.
- I don't know if this is safe but.
Oh, what's up, guys?
I was drawn to HVAC because, that was the only thing my father couldn't do.
My dad did construction.
I used to do, like little stuff with him.
Like I used to just do like the sheet rocking, and like light framing.
You want a pair of sneakers that cost $150?
Come help me cement this basement.
It's not communicating.
So I need to make sure that the blower motor is not bad either.
So I thought I was going to get out of school, and I'm gonna have HVAC, and he's going to have everything, and we could get contracts, and we can do the whole house.
Just me and him.
I had a lotta learning to do.
Lots and lots of learning.
I went to Orleans Technical Institute and the way they work, they're a non-profit organization.
So they were the cheapest.
I wound up owing only like 4,500, $5,000.
Something like that.
That's all I owed because I got up to like 7,000, 7,300 in grants.
- [Philip] Vocational schools typically cost much less than four year programs, and take much less time to complete.
But schooling is only part of a tradesperson's education.
- When I got to the, I'll say the last three months of the program, a company hired me full time.
I mean, I was a helper.
I was passing tools to people, but I was in the field.
So that kind of like motivated me to stay with it.
Hands-on is 98%.
You learn the bookwork as you go.
If this unit is taking 54,000 BTUs, the only thing you gettin' with 10 feet of a half inch, you're only getting 180,000 BTUs.
- While the average graduate with a four-year degree will eventually earn more money over the course of a lifetime, skilled tradespeople still earn above the national average, and can start earning sooner than their college educated peers, with less debt.
Depending on the job and location, salaries for some trades can reach into the six figures.
- So now that I am my own boss, I roughly make 11K a month.
Some months are good.
Some months are bad.
Learning how to manage your time is probably like the biggest thing.
I got to make sure the guys got all the material they need.
And I also need to make sure that all the credit cards are paid, I got to be on the phone with customers.
Service calls, estimates, setting appointments, right now, 'cause I do everything.
I don't even have a secretary, so.
I get home and I clock in to be the office person.
Number one thing, finding good employees.
Number one, it's the hardest thing in the world.
That's been my biggest struggle being a business owner.
The guys that I use, the guys that do the job with me.
When you got them type of guys, it just makes your job easier, period.
- Over the last couple decades, there has been a growing shortage of skilled tradespeople in America, especially amongst construction related fields like plumbing, electrical, and HVAC.
The main reason is that retiring baby boomers are simply not being replaced by younger generations in the same numbers, despite the rising salaries.
Some attribute this to a cultural shift, that encourages four year college for everyone, and places a stigma on jobs that involve any kind of manual labor.
- If you're okay with getting dirty.
Then, just to feel for you, you're laying in people's basements, you're touching dirty water.
A lot of times you got to rope up compressors.
We got to get the two ton coil up on that roof right there.
That's not light.
That's like 80 pounds.
Who's coming up with me?
- Picking up the unit?
- You ain't getting out of this one, buddy.
- You go home beat every day.
And don't ever make plans.
'Cause you don't ever know what time you're coming home.
The only thing you know is what time you going in.
Like yesterday, I worked to 8:15 on a Friday.
- [Man] Yeah, I woulda been pissed.
- No complaining.
The number one reason is because not every job is the same.
You got to remove the water heater, or sometimes the mechanical room is too small, or they built, they put the unit first and then built a mechanical room afterwards.
We got this little saying, we say, I can't see through walls.
You can never properly price that job or put material for that, because you don't know what's going on, on the other side of the wall.
- The same unpredictability that keeps Luis and his crew working long hours, may also be protecting their jobs from automation.
Robots and artificial intelligence are best at tasks that are repetitive and regimented.
Going to unfamiliar locations to troubleshoot novel problems in equipment that may be from any manufacturer or year, isn't something that robots are close to being capable of.
And there's another aspect of Luis's job that requires a distinctly human touch.
- This is Louis with Arctic Fox.
- [Man] Hey Luis, how you doin', man?
- I'm pretty good.
In the summertime, and in the winter time, customers get very desperate.
If it's bone dry like that, that means there's a pretty big leak.
And it's R22, R22 is expensive.
If they need like, a part and a part has to be ordered, Oh man.
They think that you're lying.
That you can't, you got the part, you just don't want to do it right now.
That's the furnace, the evaporator coil and the condenser.
- [Man] Uh-huh.
And that's with 10 year warranty.
It's another obstacle of customer service you got to learn.
So if somebody has that, I'd rather keep, I'd rather build somebody off of customer service and people skills than anything else.
- The escalating student debt crisis isn't the only reason why trades may become an attractive option for more people in the future.
The U.S. is suffering from a severe housing shortage and there are bills allocating trillions of dollars for infrastructure currently making their way through Congress.
- These are jobs that cannot be outsourced or off shored.
It will have to be people living and working in the U.S. who build the millions of new homes and make the repairs to our roads and bridges that we will depend upon for decades to come.
- If I can go back into time and I can have a conversation with my 16 year old self, he wouldn't be surprised, 'cause I always knew that I was gonna be something.
But what I would tell myself is, get on the road faster so we can retire younger.
- I knew eventually you would find your way.
And I feel bad, because I couldn't do much in many different ways.
But when you look back and you get older, you're going to say I did this by myself.
- I'm glad I didn't go to college.
I'm happy the way life turned out.
I'm kinda happy that we grew up in the 'hood.
- I'm glad we both did, because we have learned to become strong people.
- The beauty about growing up in the 'hood is like, nobody can take nothing from you.
Growing up in that environment, it makes you really tough.
If you stay positive, nothing can defeat you.
- Kay, see you later.
- All right.