Rebuilding Michigan’s Trades: New book touts skilled trades to 8th graders

While industries in virtually all sectors of the economy are seeking employees, perhaps nowhere is the need so great as in the skilled trades. When the Great Recession sent the entire housing market into a tailspin, many of those in carpentry, plumbing, HVAC, and other home-building industries left the state or took up other careers.

Now with the economy surging and home sales exploding, the need is great. Add to that the facts that many of those left are rapidly approaching retirement, and that other related skilled industries from manufacturing to design are desperately seeking workers.

Recognizing that need, Dawn Crandall, executive vice president for government relations at the Michigan Home Builders Association, and Jerry Jenkins of local publishing company the Jenkins Group hatched a plan: creating a book for high school students, citing both the need for and the virtues of pursuing the skilled trades.

They enlisted the help of freelance writer (and Eyes Only Media contributing writer) Craig Manning, and the result is Build Your Future – The Complete Guide to A Skilled Trades Career.

Jenkins says the book is in many ways a descendant of books previously written for elementary and middle school students. Billy the Builder Bear Builds a House for grades K-3 was followed by an activity book geared toward late elementary students.

“I was talking to Dawn and she said, ‘I’ve got nothing for eigth grade and up.’ I talked to Craig and he was interested in putting the book together, with Dawn editing,” said Jenkins.


The book came to fruition earlier this year. Now they just have to get it into the hands of students.

Crandall is working with the Michigan legislature to secure funding to put it in schools across the state. The goal is to provide a copy for every student in those grades, as well as teachers and counselors.

“We’d need $2.5 million to get it to 250,000 kids in the state,” said Crandall.

For each year thereafter, the cost would be significantly less as there would only be a need for each year’s class of eighth graders as well as any new students.


Those involved with the skilled trades locally applaud the project, and say such efforts help elevate the trades in comparison to earning a college degree.

“College was for the bookish, while tool kids took shop classes,” recalled Bob O’Hara, executive officer for the Home Builders Association Grand Traverse Area. “College is not the only pathway to success.”

That’s echoed by Warren Call, president and CEO of the economic and development association Traverse Connect, whose brother is a successful carpenter.

“After my brother graduated from high school, he went to Michigan State and got a psychology degree he’s never used,” said Call.

Jason Slade, vice president for strategic initiatives at Northwestern Michigan College, says he believes the book is an important part of ongoing efforts to interest younger people in the trades.

“I think it does a good job highlighting job opportunities. It’s part of a multi-pronged approach,” he said. “It’s all part of a long-term vision.”

Slade, who previously was director of NMC’s Technical Division, goes on to note how it’s possible to combine learning and hands-on experience. In many instances students can earn money learning on the job.

“So many companies will pay for studies,” said Slade, including college courses, apprenticeship programs, or classes that lead to certification in various fields.

Kendra Balderach, executive director of the Builders Exchange of Northwest Michigan, says her organization has been working on a project entitled “Build Your Life” to address the skilled trades with HBAGTA and NMC.

“What we’re finding is by tenth grade (the students) have decided what path they’re going to. If they’re going to the Career Tech Center they’ve decided by then, so we concentrate on seventh to ninth grade,” she said.

The organization is also working on a program called “Building Up Women” with Windemuller Electric.

Crandall says she believes the book will help efforts to portray the trades as a viable option to underserved populations, such as women, those who have been or are incarcerated, veterans, minorities and others.

“It’s not just a job; it’s a career,” she said.

And a good-paying one. The fact that the trades offer excellent wages without potentially incurring massive debt through college costs increases their appeal. The book extends beyond the trades specific to the housing industry to include manufacturing, graphic design, IT, health care, agriculture and other fields that may not require a college degree to master, while offering long-term career benefits.


Rich Wolin is regional vice president and director of northern lower operations for the Michigan Manufacturing Tech Center. He says connecting with students early and often is crucial to the state’s efforts to rebuild the manufacturing sector and keep younger people in the state.

“Connection to school learning to see how it’s used in the real world is really important. For some, that (hands-on) learning is necessary,” he said.

Wolin cites the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning through programs like First Robotics with helping all students see the possibilities in hands-on trades while emphasizing academic learning as well. He says a book like this that further emphasizes those trades can only be helpful.

Crandall says the legislators she has met with offer positive feedback about the book, but the process of gaining the funds necessary to publish enough copies and distribute them throughout the state takes time.

“The legislature works at its own pace. One way we’re looking is funding it as a line item in the American Rescue Plan. It could also go in a supplemental (budget) or fiscal year 2022-23 as a line item in the educational budget. The last 10% of the lift is the hardest, but no one has said no,” she said.

Jenkins anticipates ongoing success for the book. He says the book is already drawing interest from  New Jersey, Iowa, Washington D.C., Florida and California from people who want to know more about the book and how to get it.