Over the past decade, you’ve likely heard about “the skills gap” in U.S. manufacturing, which is defined as the difference between the skills that manufacturers are looking for and the training and experience that candidates possess.
The Economic Policy Institute found that the U.S. lost 1.4 million net manufacturing jobs between 2007 and 2014, and it’s been a slow recovery since. Likewise, the number of construction companies and jobs declined from an all-time high in 2006-2007 through 2013. Construction is expected to outperform almost all other industries in job creation in the years ahead, but will there be enough qualified people to fill them? The same question applies for electricians, welders, plumbers and other skilled trades.
When I was in high school in the first decade of the 2000s, there seemed to be a general consensus that, if you wanted a well-paying career — or a career, in general, and not just a job — a four-year university was the only logical path forward. Sure, we could opt-in to a shop or auto class (I took a woodworking class), but skilled trades weren’t promoted nearly as much as preparing us to attend a four-year college. At the time, the misconception existed that jobs in the skilled trades were a good path mainly for the kids who “weren’t cut out” for college.
Sadly, I think that misconception still exists today, though incremental progress is being made to combat it.
Andrew Brown is on a mission to tackle that and similar misconceptions head-on. In 2002, Brown co-founded Toolfetch.com, an eCommerce-based industrial distributor that caters to skilled trades. On LinkedIn, Brown is arguably the distribution sector’s biggest champion for the skilled trades on the strength of the short videos he frequently posts on there.
As for the inspiration behind Toolfetch and his greater love for the skilled trades, Brown points to Sept. 11, 2001 as a life-changing day for him as then a 23-year-old working on Wall Street in New York City.
“The planes had just hit the building, and I got this crazy idea to call my friend in Rhode Island, and to go down there (Ground Zero) and try to help,” Brown told me on the MDM Podcast. “I couldn’t just sit there. So I convinced him to come in. A handful of days after, he comes in with a big blue van truck with a big American flag on the back. He’s dressed as a tradesperson. He’s got overalls and a hard hat for me. We find ourselves racing down the West Side Highway going from checkpoint to checkpoint. We park the van and, all of a sudden, we’re standing where World Trade Center where once stood. The entire day, I was helping emergency workers and tradespeople find survivors. I was watching the tradespeople on-site — who had no PPE on — doing whatever it took to find survivors, They were running into unstable structures and helping clear the path for emergency workers to find survivors. And after that experience, I had a life-changing event, not only personally, but professionally.”
Brown explained that he quit his Wall Street job a couple of weeks later and spent the following months trying to find a way to give back to the tradespeople he saw on that day at Ground Zero. So, he and his brother co-founded Toolfetch in 2002 as an online tool and equipment reseller to welders, carpenters, plumbers and other blue-collar trades around the world. Today, the business’ catalog has over one million different products from approximately 650 different vendors.
But beyond providing a resource for tradespeople to procure tools and equipment from, Brown was compelled to be a voice for the industry.
“I see this as my way to connect with them,” he told me. “I’ve been doing it on a consistent basis, speaking to them behind the scenes around the country and listening to all their issues with the skills gap and wages. I just felt like I needed to be a voice for the blue-collar skilled trades. And that’s when I started putting out content and connecting with others out there.”
Our podcast discussion dispelled some of the biggest myths and misconceptions surrounding the skilled trades and the reasons they exist in the first place, as well as the underlying factors for the skills gap. According to Brown, it goes far beyond those trades not being a sexy industry like the technology sector offers.
“It’s what’s being spoken about in school — the guidance counselor, teachers — it’s even parents and depends on how you grew up. Did your parents go to college? Were they in the trades? Do they know anything about the trades? What is said in the household has an extremely profound effect on a young person. You go to school and you’re sitting with the guidance counselor and they ask, ‘What school are you going to?’ and your teacher is also pushing college.”
A 2022 study by Stanley Black & Decker found that, while 85% of high schoolers and 94% of parents think skilled trade work is a good quality career option, just 16% of high schoolers are very likely to consider a skilled trade career.
Brown was adamant that he has nothing against four-year colleges. He just wants skilled trades to have a fair shake at landing young people who have been told for years that college should be their desired path.
“I always feel that people should have options before they sign on that dotted line,” he said. “(Skilled trades) have always been Plan B. It’s for the kids who are not good students — the bad kids, right? It’s an old adage that has been passed down from generation to generation. If your hands are dirty, it’s looked down upon. Something about that stigma hasn’t left, and it’s just really untrue.”
Brown touched on the lucrative pay scale for tradespeople who make a career out of it and the importance of educating high school and college students about the different paths they can take in those fields. And beyond better promotion of the skilled trades, he advised, these young people need mentors from those careers who can speak from experience.
And even though distribution isn’t necessarily a skilled trade by definition, the industry has plenty of them. Distributors look to services such as installation, repair, design, consultation and more to differentiate themselves, and it’s skilled tradespeople who empower them to do so. Our conversation touched on how distributors are leveraging tradespeople in that manner.
Listen to the full podcast episode via the audio player above, and check out our full library of MDM Podcasts here.