• Spencer Kohler


We have to start recognizing that our society would grind to a halt without skilled carpenters, laborers, chefs and hotel managers.

MY father was not proud of the fact that I was a laborer. My first job out of school, I started as a carpenter in East Los Angeles. When imagining his children working for a construction company or becoming machinists, there was a sense of failure. Nearly all parents want their kids to attend college, and my own parents were no exception.

In my community, however, we take pride in a job well done. The Latino community in particular appreciates working in industries such as construction, airplane manufacturing and welding because culturally in Mexico those are considered good jobs. Mistakenly, these careers are not given enough focus in the United States.

A four-year apprenticeship program can equal or exceed the earning potential of a postsecondary degree. An apprentice electrician earns $19 an hour, which can be achieved the first year out of high school. By the time an electrician completes a five-year apprenticeship program, he or she could be making close to $100,000 a year.

Unfortunately, every time trade employers need workers, they scratch their heads and do whatever they can to attract and retain employees to fit their business models. Contractors are hiring anyone who can fog a mirror because there aren’t enough bodies.

Washington state does not provide enough opportunity for learning about the trades. Our education system has failed in a couple of ways. First, we still have not reached a statewide high-school graduation rate of 80 percent. This in itself is unacceptable. And K-12 schools have not been able to figure out that in addition to degree completion, the job of our system is to ready our kids to become productive contributors to society and to be self-supporting.

What Washington needs to do is go back to the drawing board. When we’re ranked where we are as compared to the rest of the country, it’s obvious the system needs a lot of work. If our state’s education system were a private business and were ranked 28th out of 50 in its industry, it wouldn’t remain in business very long.

Shop classes are disappearing because schools are losing funding. The deeper challenge is we need to start instilling pride into the traditional trades. Even when I was young, I used to say, “I am just a construction worker.” I almost apologized for it. We have to start recognizing that our society would grind to a halt without skilled carpenters, laborers, chefs and hotel managers.

My community welcomes any great career that is sustainable and gives us the ability to provide for our families. But the message we’re getting is that if we don’t earn a college degree, then we become second tier in the social food chain.

My uncle, Edward R. Roybal, was the first Latino U.S. congressman elected in California since 1879. Fifty years ago, when he gave his stump speeches, I listened to him highlight the same issues the Latino community is dealing with now. Not much has changed.

It takes a community to create role models for our children, so kids can see how to build a productive life. If we present role models that are carpenters because they’re visible — there are thousands of them — and say a trade job is as good as any other, then that’s real progress.

And when employers understand they’re not employing a Mike Sotelo — they’re employing Mike Sotelo, his three children and his wife — that’s when it becomes magical.

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