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OpEd: Building Construction Trades Offer Benefits College Does Not

April 15 2008

OpEd: Building Construction Trades Offer Benefits College Does Not
By Maria Granone, President/CEO, National Electrical Contractors Association

Higher education is a cultural value in our society that is believed to lay the foundation for success. Although this is absolutely true, the classroom alone does not equip students with all the tools they need to achieve instant success. Opportunities in the building construction trades do provide these essential tools.

College students are taught information through textbooks, in-class lectures, notes and exams. Frequently, students settle with a major just so they can get through school, but have no idea how they are going to apply their degree after graduation. Throughout the four to five years it takes an individual to earn his or her bachelor’s degree, students have mastered the notion of theory. Although learning theory is valuable, students are not prepared with the experience to apply this theory in a real world setting.

The difference between real world experience and a piece of paper is invaluable to many employers. There are many instances in which college graduates cannot find a job after graduation because they have no experience; as a result, many of them end up waiting tables or working in retail stores. College graduates are forced to invest many years after college gaining experience, whereas apprentices in the trade programs are a step ahead, already having the skills necessary to enter the workforce.

Building and construction apprenticeship programs incorporate theory with application to ensure students have the specialized experience necessary to guarantee their success. Completing an apprenticeship takes about the same amount of time as it does to earn a bachelor’s degree. Building and construction apprentices are paid as they learn and they can earn an associate’s degree while completing the program.

Students in the Electrical Apprenticeship Program, for example, gain experience working alongside a licensed journeyman, while taking classes pertaining to the trade. Apprentices are taught specialized techniques used in the electrical industry that can be applied working under the supervision of a skilled craftsman. Students are given added responsibility and advancements as their skills continue to develop.

The five-year electrical program includes 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and about 50 college credit hours. The classes are small, with a student-teacher ratio of 1:12, which allows students to get to know their instructors on an individual basis. By the conclusion of the program, apprentices achieve journeyman status, and their starting pay is doubled. Most of the other trade programs in plumbing/pipefitting and sheet metal follow the same format.

On a broader scale, there are organizations like the Mechanical Electrical Sheet Metal Alliance (MESA), which is comprised of several building and construction associations and unions. These businesses and unions have jointed together to promote awareness about all of the outstanding opportunities available in building and construction trades. MESA concentrates not only on promoting their respective trades, but also on the leading apprenticeship programs available within their career fields.

The primary reason why people do not pursue higher education is because they cannot afford to give up a full-time income to go to school. Apprentices in trade programs receive excellent wage rates, paid health insurance, advancement opportunities and guaranteed pension benefits. Many students take advantage of the programs because they cannot afford to pay for college, have an interest in vocational studies, or are looking for a career that will pay them while being trained. Much to their astonishment, they soon discover that these programs have much to offer that college does not.

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