Hats Off for the Skilled Land Force

Two Roofers

A student and a supervisor rebuilding a roof at Warren Wilson College.

Between the intensive sampling called for in managing alpha units and all the work of implementing prescriptions, Rural System would need to employ a great many people. This “Land Force” would be comprised of interested and skilled local workers, and would hopefully attract budding tradespeople back to rural places. Some people might think “oh, that won’t be hard. There are plenty of people who need jobs right?” Wrong.  In reality, skilled trades are the number one most difficult job to fill in America and worldwide. There is a subtle prejudice and ignorance prevalent in American society today, and it has everything to do with our now-flooded higher education system.

Young people are pushed to go thousands of dollars into debt to attend universities. Upon graduation, they are not even guaranteed to land a job. In fact, there is a fair argument to be made that a master’s is the new bachelor’s in terms of your hireability. Meanwhile a hard-working young man or woman could attend a trade school for less money and obtain employment immediately after graduation. The median wage for skilled workers in one study was $20.25 an hour, which is a fair sight better than flipping burgers at McDonalds.

According to a survey run by the staffing firm ManpowerGroup, 55% of employers have staffing problems due to lack of applicants. The third most common reason for this difficulty is a lack of expertise. This problem is worsened by the imminent retirement of the baby boomers.  According to EMSI, 53% of skilled trade workers were over the age of 45 in 2012, and 18.6% were between the ages of 55 an 64. A huge and rapid turnover is going to happen within a decade or two on top of the already present skill-gap.

Rural System cannot do much about this shortage in skilled workers unless, perhaps, by offering internships to attract trade students. We can, however, pay tribute here to the tirelessly hard-working men and women who keep the U.S. running from below every day. We stand with Skills for America’s Future to say that skilled tradespeople are “our country’s engine of progress.” The jobs these people fill are essential, and are certainly complicated and challenging. Tradespeople are not unintelligent, but rather resourceful and quick-thinking.  They need to be in order to troubleshoot problems on the job.

As it happens, I have had direct experience with this. I only came to Radford this past summer from a small liberal arts college nestled in the Swannanoa River valley in North Carolina. Hands down, Warren Wilson College is the most unique, interesting place I’ve ever been. Known for its commitment to community and its environmental stewardship, Warren Wilson implements what’s known as the Triad: academics for the mind, work for the hands, service for the heart. Every student in attendance is required to work 15 hours a week for the school, and in exchange they receive 3,500 off their tuition for the semester. Nearly every job done on campus is done by the students in their work crews. As an example, I found myself breaking down chimneys in the construction crew, Campus Support, and building chairs and instruments on the Fine Woodworking Crew.

Laurel, cutting through the frame of an old kiln with an angle grinder.

Laurel, cutting through the frame of an old kiln with an angle grinder.

Skilled trades require an entirely different kind of intelligence and bodily awareness. They are, in a big sense, master crafts. Many of the crew supervisors at Warren Wilson were as accomplished at teaching as the professors, and their expertise ranged over decades. Such people deserve at least as much respect as the PhDs. Have you seen a college kid solve a plumbing problem? A graduate student? A doctor?

Rural System would be an ideal place for students interested in sustainable farming practices or simply in working on the land. The Land Force would employ as many skilled local workers as possible, providing them with improved salaries and medical care. All are welcome to demonstrate their expertise or to learn new skills as they take samples from the land and carry out prescriptions. Just as society cannot do without our tradespeople, Rural System cannot operate without its Land Force.

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About Laurel Sindewald

Laurel is an alumna of Warren Wilson College with a BS in Conservation Biology and a BA in Philosophy. She is a writer for Rural System, Inc.


  1. Risa Pesapane says:

    For those who are interested in advanced education, consider agriculture (not farming, per se) as another field able to weather the fluctuating climate of the economy. Recent studies find that along with the known employable fields of health care, education, and finance now agriculture grads are enjoying post-graduate employment. Only 6% of ag grads are unemployed.

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