Tricks of the trade (school)

Tech education yields career paths

“Not everyone has to be a doctor or lawyer,” says a meme with a photo of a young boy who appears to be sitting at the controls of a large construction vehicle. “Teach your kids that it’s OK to work with your hands and build cool stuff.”

The meme was shared by Matt Smith, whose education and career path follows its message. Matt, who lives in Kingston, Pennsylvania, has a vast knowledge of plumbing and heating and HVAC systems thanks to opportunities to study the trades.

Matt first explored his interests during his high school years. A graduate of Hazleton Area High School, he attended the school district’s Career Center where he took up plumbing and heating in modular homes.

“We actually built a modular home from 10th-12th grade,” he said. “The house was inspected by … plumbing and electrical code inspectors.”

Matt built on that experience after high school by studying plumbing and heating and HVAC at Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. While he primarily works as a welder and metal fabricator, his knowledge in the area of plumbing and heating gives him the opportunity to do some jobs on the side, including the chance to help family and friends with the workings of their homes.

Matt’s path is one that represents many who have taken up trade school rather than going through a traditional college degree program. A 2019 article in The Atlantic notes that trade school enrollment rose from 9.6 million students in 1999 to 16 million in 2014, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The article also says the resurgence followed a decline in vocational school enrollment in the 1980s and ‘90s, which led to a shortage of skilled workers and tradespeople.

And 529 funds can be used for trade and technical schools that are eligible to participate in federal financial aid programs, as well as registered apprenticeships for those who take that route toward a career.

It’s a trend that Matt encourages.

“I definitely recommend kids in high school to take up a trade,” he said, noting that he earns decent money in the area of northeast Pennsylvania where he works. “They’re definitely in demand.”