Many skilled trades face similar shortages, and those shortages have environmental consequences. The Inflation Reduction Act includes billions in tax credits and direct funding for a long list of climate-friendly projects, but all of them depend on the availability of workers who can execute and maintain them. Last year, on Ezra Klein’s Times podcast, my colleague Bill McKibben said, “If you know a young person who wants to do something that’s going to help the world and wants to make a good living at the same time, tell them to go become an electrician.” This seems logical—you can’t electrify without electricians—but it doesn’t fully describe the need. My daughter and her husband hired an electrician to install an outlet next to their driveway, for their plug-in hybrid minivan, but the car, its network of charging stations, and the electric grid itself wouldn’t exist without welders, machinists, mechanics, carpenters, pipe fitters, and many others. In new construction, electric heat pumps are rapidly becoming the default option, for both heating and cooling, but on most installations the bulk of the work is done not by electricians but by heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (hvac) techs. Plumbers are indispensable, too. Changing weather patterns and rising sea levels threaten access to clean water in many parts of the country, and when water infrastructure fails entire communities suffer, as in the ongoing crises in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi. Plumbers also work on many energy-related projects, including the installation of ground-source heating-and-cooling systems. According to a recent report published by Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group, job openings in the construction industry averaged three hundred and ninety thousand a month in 2022, and the shortfall was made more ominous by the fact that roughly a quarter of existing workers are older than fifty-five.
One reason for the skilled-labor gap is that the work is real work. The electricians who restored power to the houses on our road spent Christmas Eve in bucket trucks, buffeted by winds so strong they made the screens on our porch hum like kazoos. LeMieux told me that he’s had apprentices who quit after a few months because they had decided the job was too wet, too messy, too cold, too dirty, too hot. A more significant factor may be that, for decades, employers, educators, politicians, and parents have argued that the only sure ticket to the good life in America is a college degree. People who graduate from college do earn more, on average, than people who don’t, but the statistics can be misleading. Many young people who start don’t finish, yet still take on tens of thousands in education loans—and those who do graduate often discover that the economic advantage of holding a degree can be negated, for years, by the cost of having acquired it.
Those who skip college frequently do better, and not just at first. “One of my guys came to me from the same trade school I went to,” LeMieux told me. “He had a couple of friends who went to college, and when they got out they were two hundred thousand dollars in debt and didn’t have jobs, and he was already making enough to buy a nice new vehicle and a house. I pay him a good hourly wage, he has health insurance and a 401(k), and he gets holidays, vacation time, and personal days. And he will always work—always.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage for plumbers and electricians is about sixty-three thousand dollars, or roughly the same as that for high-school teachers (who typically need not just college but also a master’s degree) and journalists.