We have all noticed how hard it is to find a reputable electrician or plumber. But almost no one ever asks, never mind addresses, why this shortage has developed.
The major reason that so few people are going into the trades is that, more often than not, doing so leads to just another kind of low-wage job.
Operating a small business as an independent contractor requires substantial operating monies up front, which completely eliminates it as a possibility for most young people from working-class, never mind even more economically disadvantaged, backgrounds. Such a business is also very difficult to sustain. To have any chance of succeeding in such a business, one needs not only vocational certification in the trade but also at least an associates degree in business. Because the demand for services always fluctuates, one inevitably needs at least a partner, if not employees, the cost of which will make it even harder to sustain the business.
Far Right politicians talk incessantly about the need to “unshackle” small business from the chains of regulation, but they almost never pass legislation that actually does so. One of the many disadvantages that small businesses have in comparison to larger businesses is that they cannot make sizable contributions to political parties and individual politicians. So the challenges that they face receive much more lip service than actual legislative action. They are the South Bronx of the American economy. (Sorry if that is a dated reference to a problem that became an almost mandatory photo-op for candidates who then seemed to forget about it as quickly as they could be driven away.)
Skilled tradesmen have been increasingly absorbed into franchise service operations that call them “independent contractors” while treating them, more often than not, as easily replaceable employees. Worse, there is a movement afoot to remove much of the certification required to work in the trades, which, not coincidentally, are still one of the more heavily unionized kinds of employment in the private sector. If this movement succeeds, franchise operations will simply have a greater opportunity to hire very marginally trained plumbers and electricians.
In a very recent post, I asked whether the university is going the way of the family farm. One can expand the analogy in asserting that corporatization is doing to the trades essentially what it is doing to the professoriate. The emphasis is on deprofessionalizing everyone but the executive/administrative class because deprofessionalization reduces the cost of labor and produces the highest immediate profits. Just as there is much hand-wringing about the difficulties facing small businesses, there will be much hand-wringing about the shoddiness of much of the work being done by low-wage workers. But raising wages and standards to create better products and services, as well as more stable and sustainable, if less spectacular, economic growth will continue to be seen as a very problematic solution as long as maximizing immediate profits is the over-riding priority.