Utah’s high-paying skilled trade professions are a best-kept secret
Photo credit: Hunt Electric
On a brisk morning in March, a small crowd gathered inside Salt Lake Community College’s Westpointe Workforce Training & Education Center. The hallways were quiet but festive and blanketed with yellow, white and blue balloons. New, satiny placards affixed to walls and doors announced the naming of the Karen Mayne Hall for Skilled Trades. Student welders and electricians paused their work for a moment to catch a glimpse of former Utah State Senator Karen Mayne—a tireless advocate for the college and skilled trade workers alike—in the naming ceremony crowd.
“This has not been an easy journey, but [my late husband] Ed and I had a heart for it,” Mayne said when asked to share a few words. “We knew we needed to protect people on the job site. We needed to make sure people were educated and make sure that all occupations are celebrated. That’s why we’re here today. To celebrate occupations, to help others fulfill their dreams and to help others be successful.”
While Mayne’s years-long journey as an advocate for the trades may have been a difficult one, it may also have been the tip of the spear in saving Utah’s ever-increasing need for skilled workers.
Layoffs? Never heard of them
“We need more people. More workers. It’s as simple as that, and it could become a crisis for us if we can’t build things because we don’t have the workers,” says Jeff Palmer, EVP at Layton Construction.
This is a far cry from what is happening in the tech sector. These days, LinkedIn reads like the obituary section for lost dream jobs. At the end of March, Google announced a round of layoffs that would impact 9,000 workers just months after laying off 18,000 employees. In April, Meta announced its two rounds of layoffs would impact a total of 21,000 jobs. Amazon laid off 18,000 staffers earlier this year, the largest cut in the company’s nearly 30-year history. The list goes on and on, yet skilled trade workers are in great demand—and the open positions in every sector are seemingly endless.
“One of the reasons we’re short on workers is so many boomers are retiring,” Palmer says. “We have more electricians retiring than we have joining. It’s becoming a major issue.”
Troy Gregory, president and CEO of Hunt Electric, echoes that sentiment. The average age of an electrician is around 55, he says, and for every three electricians who are retiring, only one is coming in to replace them.
“We need new leaders in our field,” Gregory continues. “We have so many opportunities we need to fill. If someone learns the trade, they can work their way up into great management roles if that’s something they’re interested in.”
To fill these open positions, companies are getting creative. Palmer says Layton Construction has been recruiting at high schools and hosting job fairs, incorporating hands-on activities so students can explore career paths that might be exciting to them.
Photo credit: Layton Construction
From commencement to career
Utah school systems can play an important role in supporting students in non-traditional career paths. Kristine Brown, a counselor at American Fork High School, says she has changed her whole approach to assisting students with their post-high school plans.
“I used to ask our kids when they reached their junior year what colleges they were hoping to attend when they graduate,” Brown says. “Now I simply ask, ‘What are your plans after graduation?’ A four-year college isn’t for everyone, and these kids need to know all the opportunities out there for them.”
Through the Alpine School District partnership, students can attend Mountainland Technical College (MTEC) tuition-free during their senior year and be that much further ahead when they graduate. Once in the program, many companies will hire MTEC students through a paid apprenticeship. Most students finish their schooling with little to no debt as a result.
“I don’t think anyone realizes how many great opportunities and careers in the trades there are out there,” says Michelle Price, director of Alpine School District’s career and technical education program. “The one thing I’d want others to know is that these aren’t low-level, low-paying jobs or careers. There’s everything from HVAC and general construction—where kids build a house from the ground up—to plumbing and electrical, cosmetology and nursing. You name it, and it’s probably offered in the program.”
Palmer agrees, claiming that if someone enjoys management, they should consider the field of construction. “These jobs are so rewarding and pay well, and not everything requires a college degree,” he says. “And the great thing is, you can be paid while you learn on the job.”
Brown still remembers a statistic presented at a conference five years ago: For every 10 students, the U.S. needs one with a master’s degree, two with a four-year degree, and the remaining seven with trade skills.
“This is not happening today,” she continues. “This is why I’ve changed my approach to helping kids with their future plans.”
At the 2022 National Construction Industry Workforce Summit, Associated General Contractors of America representatives from each state met to brainstorm ideas for increasing recruitment to the construction workforce. A summary of one breakout session, “Engaging the Future Workforce through School-to-Work Experiences,” points to tactics such as youth outreach, paid teacher externships, social responsibility and skills competitions.
It pays to work in a skilled trade
In 2022-2023, the average cost of in-state tuition at a public college or university was $10,940 per year, according to College Board’s annual “Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid” report. Out-of-state students attending a public four-year college averaged $28,240 per year. These figures make a career in the trades for Utah high school graduates even more attractive, as companies like Layton Construction and Hunt Electric provide on-the-job training or reimburse students for tuition and fees.
Jake Monson, a 22-year-old from Highland, Utah, sees the opportunity and is pursuing a career in electrical. “I started working for a small residential electrical company owned by one of my neighbors about a year ago,” he says. “I love working with my hands, so this is a great fit for me. I love finishing a project, standing back and realizing, ‘I built that.’”
Aircraft maintenance is one of the most needed and best-paid trade occupations, but it has flown under the radar. High retirement rates and the surge in post-pandemic travel have quickly increased the need for certified aircraft maintenance technicians.
“The first thing I want everyone to know is that women are paid the same as men in this industry,” says Todd Baird, an associate professor in the aviation maintenance program at SLCC. “It’s always been that way, and it will always be that way.”
Besides pay equity, Baird points to other financial rewards for joining the industry. Many airlines and aircraft companies pay all licensing fees for new hires, which can cost upwards of $1,500. Signing bonuses and tuition reimbursements are also common.
“I’ve seen people get anywhere from $5,000-$20,000 just for signing on, and aircraft mechanics can make $120,000 per year,” Baird says. “It’s a great career.”
"We need to get the word out there. There are great jobs in the trades. They are what will keep this great state progressing."
Photo cred: Salt Lake Community College
Opportunities for women
In April, Aja Heims graduated from SLCC’s two-year aircraft maintenance program. She expects to make a starting wage of $30 per hour as a fully licensed technician.
“Being an aircraft mechanic opens up many, many doors,” Heims says, who is one of the few women in her graduating class. “You can get a job anywhere else simply because you’re licensed to work on aircraft. This is the only maintenance field where you’re required to be certified and licensed to do this work. With that federal license, you’re able to work on any kind of engine or machine.”
Hailey Brohamer is a Copper Hills High School graduate whose petite frame and girl-next-door vibe belies her occupation as a licensed diesel technician. She’s the third generation in her family to take this career path, which she describes as the hardest and most rewarding thing she’s ever done.
“I’m not as strong as the men I work with, so I have to get creative with how I move an engine, for example,” Brohamer says. “I have to think outside of the box a lot. I’ve proved to myself that I’m capable of a lot more than I think.”
Brohamer’s advice for other women who like technical jobs? “Look into the trades.”
At the SLCC naming ceremony, guest speaker and student welder Katie Poulsen described being welcomed into the program with open arms.
“My experience at SLCC has been one of the best experiences of my life, and I hope to one day be an instructor here myself,” Poulsen said. “Something about flipping my hood down and watching the weld going in is just peaceful to me. Any stress or chaotic things going on in my life are forgotten when I have my hood down. To me, welding is my tranquility in life.”
As the ceremony was winding down, I had the opportunity to chat with Senator Mayne, who was seated in a wheelchair and weak from her battle with breast cancer. Her voice was firm in conviction but soft in delivery. She gripped my hand tightly with both of hers. With bright eyes, she told me, “We need to get the word out there. There are great jobs in the trades. They are what will keep this great state progressing.”
She reiterated the need for women in the workforce, lamenting the many women whose marriages end and who find themselves wondering how they’ll support themselves and their children with no work experience.
“Jobs in the trades are there for them,” Mayne said, and with that, she was wheeled down the hallway. A trail of blue and yellow balloons bounced gently behind her, a symbol of the trail she has blazed for all the future students who will learn and dream in the labs that bear her name.