The Portland school system is in the news for a proposed requirement that students “complete and submit an application to a post-secondary educational institution or training program” in order to graduate.

As a building contractor, I am troubled by the underlying assumptions that going directly from high school to a good job is undesirable, or that an interest in work in the trades is a defeat for anyone with gumption.

In embracing “college readiness,” we have lost sight of the fulfilling, challenging careers that do not require more than a high school diploma, yet are vital to Maine’s future. The building trades can and do provide a lifetime of learning; continued and successful employment requires the ongoing accumulation of skills and knowledge.

For those with a technical bent, there are new heating systems with sophisticated controls, or new ways to monitor home performance with sensitive equipment.

For those who appreciate history and the tradition of carpentry, Maine has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, much of it full of historic details that need restoration.

For those who like math, all the best framers I know have an excellent intuitive understanding of geometry, and those fluent in trigonometry can go even further.

Those who run jobs need verbal and written skills to communicate varied information with many types of audiences.

Drive by a job site and look at who the skilled trades people are. Chances are you’ll see a lot of older workers. Maine has a problem with an aging workforce; construction is a prime example.

Seasoned carpenters, plumbers and electricians are unable to share their skills and experience with the next generation because young people are not applying for jobs in this field (this shortage of skills among younger workers is endemic in production and manufacturing).

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that employment of carpenters will grow by 24 percent between 2012 and 2022, “much faster than the average for all occupations.” For all construction trades, the figure is 22 percent, as opposed to just 11 percent for all occupations, according to the Employment Projections program of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet our schools seem to treat a career in the trades as something to be avoided at all costs.

Portland is fortunate to have excellent programs at Portland Arts & Technology High School. I am on the advisory board of the carpentry program there, which provides some terrific opportunities.

A second-generation owner of a prominent Portland contracting company had to battle with his guidance counselor to be allowed to attend PATHS; he was told it wasn’t an appropriate choice for a smart kid. I don’t think the situation has improved since he graduated in 1997. And from what I’ve been able to learn, few of the program’s graduates go on to work in the trades, suggesting that the right audience is not being targeted.

There are plenty of smart, creative kids who simply don’t like school or the classroom. The trades are full of people who struggled in school but turn out some of the most thoughtful, beautiful work you could imagine. Shouldn’t we be encouraging them to pursue useful, interesting careers, where demand for their skills is high and only going to grow?

Why are we encouraging so many kids to assume crushing debt loads when there are good-paying jobs going begging? Short of finding buried treasure while digging a foundation, the chances of getting rich in construction are slim, but a wage above $20 an hour, with benefits, is common for experienced carpenters. Another upside is that in the building trades, every day is casual dress day.

I should add that I was lucky enough to get a college education, and I am a parent of a student at Casco Bay High School, where the proposed graduation requirement is already in effect. In addition, there are excellent construction programs at several community colleges that would meet the standard.

Part of the discussion about continued education should include improving attitudes about construction and other industrial careers. Otherwise, you’ll soon see job sites featuring steel-toed walkers and bifocal safety glasses.

— Special to the Press Herald

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