Founded by a union activist in 1882, Labor Day was created to honor the social and economic achievements of American workers — such as machinists, ironworkers, welders, plumbers and woodworkers. But such jobs have been downgraded to second-tier status in recent decades because of the push for young people to pursue college degrees.

A Ventura College student practices welding skills in a lab as the new fall semester gets underway. Lead instructor Michael Clark oversees the program that offers three paths to longtime careers.
CREDIT: Photos courtesy of Michael Clark

The public perception — and many students’ expectation — is that a college degree paves the path to success, even if it comes with a bucket of school loan debt.

Spending a career behind an office desk, though, is not for everyone. Thanks partly to popular TV shows like Monster Garage and Counting Cars, more and more students have found hands-on skills very “cool.” So much so that there are waiting lists to get into welding, automotive and health-care programs at Ventura College, which touts an array of career education courses — a rebranding of sorts from what used to be called vocational training.

Last year, California kicked off an aggressive $6 million campaign to promote career and technical education in the community college system — 114 campuses. The realization is that there is high demand for skilled laborers who can obtain good-paying jobs after two years or less of training.

“It’s a good time to be in welding because students are getting employed,” said Michael Clark, lead instructor of the welding program at Ventura College. “There’s job opportunities out there. And the whole mindset of vocational education has changed over time that they (students) realize that people can make a living wage doing this.”

Clark noted that a student who earns an AWS (American Welding Society) certification — one of three offerings in the program — is immediately employable. “They don’t leave with any loans, really,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot you have to invest in to learn this skill — basic hand tools, some clothing and miscellaneous gear. And then you just practice the skill and knowledge. … But there’s also the basic work skills you have to have — be on time and work hard.”

Back in the day when people thought of welding, they likely envisioned a man in overalls sitting atop a steel beam torching together metal. It may have been a common sight during construction of high-rise buildings in the 1880s when machinist Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, proposed creating Labor Day. The first holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, Sept. 5, in 1882 in New York City. It became an official federal holiday — regarded as a “workingmen’s holiday” — in 1894, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Miguel Delgado Helleseter, assistant professor of economics at CSU, Channel Islands

When skilled trades began to be regarded as second-tier occupations is uncertain, according to Miguel Delgado Helleseter, assistant professor of economics at CSU, Channel Islands. “This stigma is unfortunate because people should be satisfied if they are doing a good job,” he said. “So it shouldn’t be seen as a lesser job with this connotation of blue collar. … There’s a lot of jobs out there under this discipline of blue collar that actually pay really, really well.”

Helleseter hopes that the separation between blue-collar and white-collar jobs is “vanishing a little bit” because of the complex technical skills now required in various fields, such as the automotive industry. “I think people sometimes have this idea that blue collar means unskilled,” he said. “That is not the case.”

Ultimately, individuals must make their career choice based on what they are good at or what their interests are, Helleseter said, adding that fluctuations in the economy might also be a consideration. For example, an individual with a college degree likely has more skills that are transferrable to a different job than someone with a specific expertise.

Kim Hoffmans, vice president of Academic Affairs and Student Learning at Ventura College

“The other thing is, we’re getting to the point where a bachelor’s degree is not enough,” said Helleseter, who also is director of the CSUCI Institute for Global Economic Research. “The bachelor’s degree is becoming the high school diploma of 20 or 30 years ago. … It means, if I want to differentiate myself in the job market I need a higher degree — maybe I need a master’s degree. … That means more debt. It also means a longer delay into entering the labor force.”

Consequently, trade schools might start looking even more attractive to young students, the economist added.

At Ventura College, labor market research on local, state and national labor trends is used to develop curriculum to prepare students for the best work possibilities, said Kim Hoffmans, vice president of Academic Affairs and Student Learning.

“Most of our career education programs are set up where they have certificates that build on each other,” Hoffmans said, noting that a student who earns a certificate after completing 18 units can obtain a job while continuing to pursue an associate’s degree.

“If we only focus on our traditional general education, kind of our liberal arts degrees, supporting our transfer students, and don’t also have the complement of career education, we won’t be able to serve our community — because our community needs workers at all skill levels,” she added.

In addition to community colleges, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, Local 484, in Ventura has seen a growing interest in trade skills, said Shane Boston, business manager and financial secretary. “We’ve got people coming in almost every day” seeking applications for the apprentice program, he said.

Shane Boston, business manager and financial secretary for United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, Local 484

With a wait list of sometimes more than a year, a union apprentice with no experience makes $21.10 per hour under an earn-as-you-learn program, which includes free classroom training, according to Boston. A union journeyman — a classification obtained after five years of work — can earn as much as $51 an hour, roughly $106,000 a year.

“People are realizing they can make a pretty good living doing what we do,” Boston said, “and not have that college tuition to pay off.”