It has always been an honor to share thoughts, stories, and other features with roofing contractors. Being an editorial contributor to Roofing Contractor has been much more than a side hustle these past decades. It has a not just been an honor, but a passion and privilege. I do not take this for granted and never will.
But at times like this I long for a broader audience.
You understand the crisis that exists in our country today as it relates to workforce development. You understand the need to develop young people who need trade skills. This even includes older folks who are transitioning from one career to another.
I try to stay out of politics, at least in writing for the roofing industry. Recent events, however, are on my mind and I cannot help but share some thoughts.
The recent announcement by the White House that the federal government will forgive a limited, but significant, amount of student-loan debt has me sad, glad, and angry. I am not the only one with mixed emotions on this topic.
I have three adult children. One, with the help of minor scholarships, his mom and dad, determination, grit, his own money, and student loans, completed his bachelor's degree in fine art. He was gainfully employed as a production artist from the time he was in high school and continues to this day. He paid his student loans off just a few years ago. No forgiveness for him.
My daughter earned a degree to become a certified nursing assistant on the way to becoming an RN. Life intervened and that progress has ceased, but she still has some student-loan debt. Most, if not all of it will be wiped out if the White House plan goes through.
My other son chose not to go to college. He received his credentials as a diesel-engine technician as he attended schools to qualify him to work on fire engines, ladder trucks, ambulances and the like. Now he will get to pay, by way of federal taxes, for the folks who borrowed money to go to college, including my daughter. Lucky for him his technical training was provided free of charge by his employers.
The whole damned thing is maddening. One of my kids did it all, paying for his education on his own. One will get to write off the last of what she owes, and the other gets stuck with the tab. They all get stuck with the tab, as do the rest of us.
But that is not all.
The tab on all the student-debt forgiveness is reported to be $24 billion per year for 10 years. What you get for your money is a big fat zero, except that the money will go into the pockets of workers for a better future life. Maybe some will buy a roof. But roughly four out of 10 did not receive a four-year degree in six years of college attendance.
Now look at this in light of the crisis in worker development. Trade schools receive around $1.4 billion annually from the federal government. This compares to over $100 billion that goes to four-year colleges and universities. One percent. Are you shitting me?
At the same time, the federal government is plunking down more billions to bring computer-chip manufacturing back to the U.S. I favor this onshoring initiative, but who is going to work in those plants? Will they all be engineers and scientists? Of course, these high-tech operations will require highly educated personnel, but they will also require mostly specially trained skilled labor. Do all these billions of dollars take this into account?
Now, who is going to build these plants? Who is going to operate the restaurants, laundries, supermarkets, and all other forms of retail services for the people who will work in these plants? Left up to the federal government, I suppose we will just scrape by while the children of the taxpayers will be pushed toward a four-year college education. Then, when they get out (with or without a degree), they will have to pay off their student loans. Or maybe not, who knows?
It is past time for the federal government to dial back the routine contributions to the four-year institutions and begin pointing a healthy portion of those dollars toward the career and technical institutions and employers of skilled workers.
Rebooting the System
The system for training skilled trade workers in this country needs a complete reboot. This should begin with an emphasis on individual skills assessments, beginning in middle school. Students should not be pushed toward a college preparatory curriculum en masse. There should be active engagement with industry to build a path toward careers in the trades.
On the left, the notion of “fairness” is warmly embraced. Is there anything fair about funding the few who will complete a four-year college degree at a 100 to 1 rate to those who want to pursue a career in the trades?
On the right, they continuously put forward the idea that the government should be frugal. Taxes and spending should be reduced and certainly justified at every level. What kind of a deal are the people of this country getting with the system that is in place today?
“We’ve always done it this way” is, once again, a recipe for failure. Lobbyists for colleges and universities will not stand for a reduction in their grants. Lobbyists for career and technical education will continue the good fight, but with far fewer resources. No doubt, at a 100 to 1 disadvantage.
Congress should keep the money flowing, but with actual results required. Like the percentage of students graduating from college. I do not want to pay for anything I do not receive. The government should likewise spend this way.
These few words of mine on this topic may or may not resonate with you roofing contractors. At least you may understand my frustration. I think the roofing industry must continue all good efforts to help the career and technical education community.
I think roofing contractors should engage with their local technical schools, both secondary and post-secondary. There are great roofing courses by NRCA and NCCER that should be taught in every trade school with a construction curriculum. That will not happen, however, without industry involvement. For your local tech school, that means you!