Millennials – those born between 1980 and 2000 – face an economic Catch-22. Most good-paying jobs require at minimum a four-year college degree. But those degrees come with a hefty price tag. The average 2013 graduate owes nearly $30,000 in student debt, an onerous burden for someone just starting out in the world.



But as National Public Radio reports, many economists say there is a better alternative: a career in the skilled trades.

Chris Arnold talks about one recent high-school graduate’s decision to go into the trades:

When 18-year-old Haley Hughes graduated from high school this past summer, she had good grades; she was on the honor roll every year. So she applied to a bunch of four-year colleges and got accepted to every one of them. But she says, ‘I wasn't excited about it really, I guess.’

So instead of going that route, Hughes is taking a different path: an apprenticeship through the big New England power utility company NStar.

Hughes is pursuing an associate degree at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston with help from NStar. The cost to her: $1,200 a semester, a steal compared to most colleges. NStar is an IBEW-represented utility.

Apprenticeship programs, like this one sponsored by Chicago Local 134, are a good career choice for millennials, says economists.

For many skilled apprentices, particularly those in a union, the price tag is free. Unlike college students who pay tens of thousands of dollars to earn a degree, apprentices earn while they learn, making money while learning a craft.

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told Arnold that a skilled tradesperson can make more than a four-year graduate. And they are learning skills that are in high demand.

‘The baby-boom workers are retiring and leaving lots of openings for millennials,’ Carnevale says. He says there are 600,000 jobs for electricians in the country today, and about half of those will open up over the next decade. Carnevale says it is a big opportunity for that millennial generation born between 1980 and 2000.

What the NPR story leaves out is the vital role unions play in maintaining and growing apprenticeship programs. The building trades are the largest provider of construction training in the private sector. More than 70 percent of registered construction apprenticeship programs are sponsored by a union.

“Absolutely essential to the opportunity agenda is ensuring that our people have the skills to succeed in 21st century jobs,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez told the 2014 Building and Construction Trades Department legislative conference. “Perhaps no training program or strategy does that as effectively as apprenticeships... and no one knows apprenticeships like the building trades. You've been doing it for over 60 years, developing world-class curriculum, utilizing cutting-edge technology, never compromising on quality, leveraging hundreds of millions of dollars of private sector dollars a year to build state-of-the-art, industry-driven programs.”