Even When the Robots Come, We’ll Still Need Plumbers, Electricians, and HVAC Technicians

Let’s say you are a young person reading a steady stream of articles saying there was a good chance the career you were thinking about was likely going to disappear because of the automation revolution. Let’s say you read—in an MIT publication, no less—that even “white collar” jobs like accountants, lawyers, and even surgeons were going to be replaced by robots.

You might be really worried.

If that’s the case, you could go online and look at which jobs are hiring today, and are likely to continue to grow for the foreseeable future.

If you did that, you would learn that the median annual salary for an electrician is $52,720, and that employment for electricians is expected to grow by at least 14% annually through 2024.

You would learn that the median salary for a plumber is $51,450, and that employment for plumbers is expected to grow by at least 12% annually through 2024.

You would learn that the median salary for an HVAC technician is $45,910, and like electricians employment for HVAC technicians is also expected to grow by at least 14% annually through 2024.

You would also learn that none of these jobs requires a four-year degree, or the debt that often comes with that degree. Electricians and plumbers typically become electricians and plumbers through apprenticeship programs, and HVAC technicians become HVAC technicians through short certification programs that can often be found at your local community college.

And none of these jobs is likely to get replaced by a robot any time soon. Despite all the focus on automation, it will be a very long time until a robot wheels itself into your home and undoes the damage your family did to the plumbing over Thanksgiving.

But isn’t becoming an electrician, HVAC technician, or a plumber the last refuge of people who couldn’t get a “real” education?

I am fortunate enough to have earned my bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Of course, I earned my degrees in a completely different era, when it was still possible to earn all the tuition money you would need by working over the summer and part-time during the school year.

(That might make me sound old—and I am a little “seasoned”—but I’m not ancient. Crippling student debt for a bachelor’s degree is a relatively recent phenomenon.)

Even though I’ve made my living wearing a white collar my education doesn’t make me smarter or better than anyone else. I know that because generations of my family were Iowa farmers and laborers. The men and women of my family made their living with their hands, and the notion that fingernails blackened from engine grease or palms thickened with callouses is synonymous with being dumb is, in itself, a dumb (and offensive) idea.

In fact, people who have a technical skill are some of the smartest people I know.

Electricians, plumbers, and HVAC technicians use concepts from physics class that I’ve long since forgotten, if I ever bothered to learn them in the first place. And the notion that the only way to learn more abstract, non-vocational concepts is in a classroom is also crazy. I’m an avid listener of podcasts, and though it might sound silly, I really believe new platforms like these give anyone—no matter how you earn a living—access to knowledge that can be comparable to a lot of what has been traditionally learned in classrooms.

I’m proud of the way my family used their hands and their backs and their brains to create economic value for our household and our community.

I’m also amazed at my electrician friends who are fluent in complex math like it was a second language.

The economy and labor market are rapidly changing, and how a lot people make a living 20 years from now will likely look very different than it does today. Some things may be replaced sooner, rather than later—like lawyers.

(Insert your favorite lawyer joke here.)

But it will be a long time (if ever) before your electrical system, plumbing, or air conditioning is repaired by a robot, rather than the intelligent, knowledgeable human being doing the job today.

Greg Prestemon is President and CEO of the St. Charles County EDC Business and Community Partners.

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