Tapping the trades for good jobs and good money


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    A bird's eye view of the National Craft Championships in Birmingham, Ala. Organizers say it was the largest competition to date, with more than 130 tradesmen and women competing. 

    - Gigi Douban

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    A contestant races the clock in the welding contest.

    - Gigi Douban

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    Carpentry was among the competition categories, along with crafts like plumbing, sheet metal work, and fire sprinkler installation.

    - Gigi Douban

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    Competitors gather for a closing talk after the six-hour competition. 

    - Gigi Douban

If there were an Indy 500 for construction, the National Craft Championship would be it: more than 100 plumbers, carpenters, metal workers and electricians facing off in a competition that's all about skill and speed.

They had six hours to finish a job. And then, time was up. Twenty-eight-year-old Holley Thomas, defending her gold medal, charged through her welding task. She finished 90 minutes before the clock ran out. Talking to her afterward, she sounded like she just played in the Super Bowl.

"I know that I came in here and gave it 100 percent. And I feel good about what I did. So at the end of the day, I could walk away and feel good about my achievements here," she says.

Holley makes welding sound really simple.

"Pretty much we take two pieces of pipe that are beveled, and you put 'em together you leave a gap between the two pieces of pipe, and you have to weld it up," she says.

And that's part of the problem. The assumption a lot of people have about trades like welding is that you don't have to be very smart to do them. Which is the challenge Holley and others in her profession face.

"These are the guys, I mean every one of these guys are mathematicians. There's not a craft here that doesn't require high-end math skills," says Greg Sizemore, who headed up the craft competition. "So to think that this is a unskilled trade is probably the furthest thing from the truth. We refer to these guys as craft professionals. "

Sizemore isn't the only one working to change the perception of tradesmen. Holley's company, Houston-based KBR, sends Holley out to schools and camps and community colleges to spread the word.

"Well I think we have an image issue," says Mike* Uremovich, who heads up a nonprofit to promote careers in construction. He says when he was in high school, his teacher laid it out like this: either go to college, or become a ditch digger.

Uremovich says things are different. "A ditch digger today climbs into a half a million piece of equipment, closes the doors, turn on the a/c and pulls levers almost like a video game, and goes home at the end of the day just as clean as when he started the day."

Uremovich says his group is trying to attract unemployed veterans and kids in urban areas to the field. He tells them college isn't the only path to a good career. And for many students, college comes with crushing debt and uncertain job prospects.

"Or you have a young person that goes to work in the trades and within four years can be making $75k to $100k a year easily," he says.

Jobs like pipefitting, plumbing and brick masonry are expected to be among the fastest growing occupations over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Community colleges are creating more programs geared toward trade careers.
 
Which is a good thing, given the huge demand for workers.

Matthew Clark recruited Holley to his company, KBR, and gave her more training.

"KBR builds petroleum, chemical refineries. And you know I need 500 Holley's right now on a project in Louisiana," Clark says.

Across the country, especially in regions where there's a lot of growth in energy and housing, thousands of positions are going unfilled, says Tom Tveidt an economist with Garner Economics.

"They're just begging for workers because they're seeing explosive growth in the double digits in construction employment," he says.

Begging for workers? We haven't heard a lot of that lately.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Mike Uremovich. The text has been corrected.

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