Those looking to make six figure salaries probably don’t have lumber yard on the top of their job search lists but maybe they ought to. The building supply company 84 Lumber has openings for skilled construction workers and managers who can make that much. Management trainees start at $40,000 a year and top managers at the biggest stores can earn up to a million dollars, including bonuses. And they’re having a hard time finding people to take those jobs. Prashant Gopal wrote about 84 Lumber and companies like it in an article for Bloomberg Businessweek. He joined Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal to discuss these well-paying blue-collar jobs that are unfilled. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: This is a story really about the relative value of a college education versus learning a trade, right?
Prashant Gopal: It is. Yes. I mean, I think there’s sort of a feeling that the only path to success in America is through college. And there are plenty of jobs right now that are unfilled, blue-collar jobs that don’t require a college education.
Ryssdal: Tell me about 84 Lumber, the company you focus on in this piece.
Gopal: So 84 Lumber is one of the largest building supply chains in the country. And it was sort of a little-known company until their Super Bowl ad this year, which focused on a mother and daughter and their journey through Mexico to a big border wall that blocked them until they found a large wooden door that was presumably built with materials from 84 Lumber. And that was sort of the beginning of a campaign to try to get young people coming to work there.
Ryssdal: This campaign that 84 Lumber is running and I guess other companies as well, are they working? Are people going to work at an 84 Lumber and the rest of them?
Gopal: At 84 Lumber, they say that their talent pool has gotten a lot better. I spoke with someone who had $100,000 in debt after graduating with a finance degree from Temple. He tried he tried to get a job at a hedge fund or a bank, and he didn’t have any experience and nobody would hire him. But 84 Lumber will take people without experience, and they’ll train them because there aren’t enough people with that sort of training. This is an avenue for even some folks with college degrees.
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Ryssdal: It’s worth a note here that President Trump has thrown some more money into this idea of apprenticeships, right? This kind of vocational skills-based learning.
Gopal: Yes, very timely. Everybody’s kind of pushing high school kids to go to college. I mean, the whole system used to be more of a track system until the early ’80s where you could work in what was called shop. You should learn about how to fix a car, or to be a plumber, or all those sorts of things, and that vanished. I mean, you have classes here or there, but it’s not really a program. So people come out of high school, most try college, half of them drop out. And they’re left with nothing to show for it but debt. And they’re not prepared for these many blue-collar jobs. There are a lot of them in construction for example, and with a little training, some of these people could take those jobs.
Ryssdal: It has to be said that in the long run, you’re better off economically if you have a college degree. Not only do you make more money, but also, in the short term, the unemployment rate for college-educated Americans is far, far lower.
Gopal: Yeah, I mean colleges still have a story to sell. There was a study that over a lifetime, a four-year degree is worth about $830,000 more than a high school diploma. So there are arguments on both sides, of course. There are a lot of people with college degrees now competing for some of the most competitive jobs out there, and some of them are ending up applying for jobs at 84 Lumber.