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The essential value of skilled trades...

The essential value of skilled trades in today’s economy

By: Jill Ford - July 3, 2024

  • State Rep. Jill Ford points to the need for parents and others influential to students’ decision-making to understand that real opportunities exist in skilled careers.

For decades, Americans have been told that if someone wants to have a good career and achieve financial success, the only route to attain that was through college. Getting a college degree was your ticket to prosperity and achieving the American Dream. Successful kids graduate from high school and enroll in a university, and those who couldn’t cut it settled for careers in trades like construction, plumbing, or mechanics.

I believed that. Like countless other parents, I believed a traditional four-year college degree was the definitive path to success. This belief was rooted in the idea that fields like law, medicine, or business were the gold standards of achievement. I wanted my kids to be successful, so I pushed them in that direction.  

My son, Patton graduated from St. Andrews Episcopal School and the University of Mississippi with English and Business degrees and had plans to attend law school. He was making all the “right” decisions. That is, until he came back from a mission trip to Haiti and announced that instead of going to law school, he was going to be a plumber.

To say my husband and I were disappointed is an understatement. Our son, whose education we’d worked hard to pay for and who was on track to become an attorney, was going to be a plumber? In our eyes, he was no longer on the “right” path, but instead was throwing away what was otherwise shaping up to be a successful life.

But he was not to be deterred. The friendships and experiences from that mission trip to Haiti changed his life and set him on a new path. He had made up his mind and was determined that his future lay in the plumbing business. That decision was undoubtedly the best of his life. 

He now owns a growing, successful business that provides critical services to families and establishments throughout Mississippi and premium wages to his 13 employees, one being his younger brother, Crockett. He lives a great life along with his wife and children and has had the opportunity to use his entrepreneurial spirit to branch out into other ventures as well. I could not be prouder of both my sons.

Patton’s story highlights the need for parents and others influential to students’ decision-making to understand that real opportunities exist in skilled careers. Technical degrees and the success they can offer have been undersold by parents and our communities for years. I’ve made it my mission as a mom, and as a state Representative, to educate more parents that these are worthy jobs, not dirty jobs.

The landscape of our economy is evolving. Fields like manufacturing, construction, energy, healthcare, information technology, and transportation logistics are not just crucial; they are foundational to our nation’s infrastructure and day-to-day operations. Yet, these industries often face a significant shortage of skilled workers. This gap presents both a challenge and an opportunity. As parents, we must recognize and support the potential for success and fulfillment in these essential careers.

The way we look at and talk about these fields must change if we’re going to continue to have a growing economy and thriving communities. Efforts like the Skills Foundation’s Skills That Pay campaign and Mississippi’s career coach programs show that Mississippi is taking these challenges seriously and working to right the economic ship, encouraging more young Mississippians to pursue high-value skilled career opportunities.

The reality is that while a majority of Mississippi students enroll in college after high school, less than a third end up obtaining a college degree. For the ones that do earn a degree, a considerable number will work in fields that don’t correspond with what they studied. To fix this, we’ve got to stop asking our kids where they want to go to college, and instead start asking them what they want to do in life.

As parents, we shouldn’t just accept our children’s decision to go into technical jobs – we should encourage and celebrate it. I know firsthand that seeing your child deviate from the path you set them on and believe to be the “right” one can be daunting, but data shows it’s one of the best decisions they can make.

I want to see more Mississippi kids achieve success like Patton did. It will give more Mississippians a chance to provide for themselves and their families. It will help our communities grow and thrive. And it will help Mississippi reach the economic and societal potential we all know it can achieve.

About the Author(s)
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Jill Ford

Jill Ford, a resident of Madison, represents district 73 in the Mississippi House of Representatives. She has worked as a Realtor in her community for 30 years.