While college students are heading back to class, more and more young people are heading to trade school. Financial and societal shifts have led trade schools to record-breaking enrollment numbers. “For many years, we were telling everyone, ‘If you wanted to get a successful career, that meant you have to go to college.’ But today, people are starting to realize that that’s not the case,” said Keith Ledbetter, the president and CEO of the Southeast Michigan Construction Academy.
SEMCA is an Oakland County nonprofit trade school that teaches carpentry, electrical, and welding.
“Our enrollment is going off the charts. It’s blowing up,” said Ledbetter.
More than 600 students enrolled at SEMCA this year. Just a few years ago, they had under 200 students.
“What we’re finding is our demographic is changing fairly dramatically,’ said Ledbetter
He said more and more young people want to avoid expensive colleges and universities.
“They’re all struggling right now with the amount of college debt and loans they have out. So, it’s been nice to be able to not have that same issue,” said Spencer Fackler, a third-year electrical program student.
Fackler said avoiding debt and earning good money are a part of the draw, but the trades have also started to get the respect they deserve.
“That’s really a shift from what we saw 10-20 years ago. Where the trades was perceived as this last-ditch option. Really, now we’re showing how valuable and incredible the trades are. And how a career in the trades can really blossom into a very fruitful and full life,” said Andy Barnum, the director of Training and Development for Lee Industrial Contracting.
Barnum has 19 apprentices in the electrical program at the academy. The apprentices’s training is paid for while they work at the company.
“It’s not like in today’s world you can just go out and pluck journeypeople out of thin air. We need quality, skilled people, and we’re willing to invest in them.
Barnum has been in the field for over 15 years. He said hiring has gotten harder, and now there is a labor gap. Experienced tradesmen are retiring, and not enough people have been trained to fill those positions. He said interest in the trades is picking up, especially since more schools are introducing the trades as an option for students.
Job security is another draw to the trade, especially in a future where more and more jobs are threatened by artificial intelligence. And the money is another bonus. Ledbetter said some of his fourth-year students make $40 an hour.
Programs at SEMCA range from eight weeks to four years and cost $4,000 or less for a year, depending on the trade.
“They come here, and they find their tribe. They find their people, they find their rhythm, they find things they get excited about, and really. they find their mission and path in life,” said Ledbetter.
Enrollment at SEMCA will open again in October for the winter semester.