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Why skip university and go into skilled trades instead

Dive In
  • Writer's pictureThe CareerBeacon Team

Skilled trades are hurting for workers, which is driving up wages in those jobs, while people are flocking to university to get degrees that may be decreasing in value in the job market. So, if you’re looking for a good career, you might want to skip the four-year (or longer) pursuit of higher education and look into a trade instead.

This is the message of a recent NPR article that reads, “While a shortage of workers is pushing wages higher in the skilled trades, the financial return from a bachelor’s degree is softening, even as the price — and the average debt into which it plunges students — keeps going up.”

It’s also something I and many others have been saying for a while. Many of us had it drummed into us growing up that university is literally the only path to career success and happiness. Obviously, that is not true and never has been. But is it even less true now than it was then?

Hard to say. Reports get released from time to time showing that people with university degrees show higher earnings than those without. But they tend to cover time periods that stretch back over 5-10 years and neglect to take into account the shifting economic landscape, which is being influenced by the rise of the gig economy, and the rise of self-education and MOOCs – both of which are recent developments. I wonder if studies conducted 10-20 years from now will yield the same results.

Earlier this year the Globe and Mail reported that in Canada, the shortage of skilled workers in the industrial sector is reaching “a new intensity, with many factory owners saying the lack of talent is hindering the growth of their companies.” And a separate report revealed that skilled trades was the area suffering the worst skills shortage in Canada, with information technology being the worst.

Why? Let’s be honest; the trades get a bad rap and are often viewed as jobs for people who can’t make it through university. A survey by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum and Skills Canada found that 71% of students surveyed said that their school guidance counsellors did not encourage them to go into skilled trades.

But that’s just ridiculous. They’re called “skilled” trades for a reason.

And, according to Statistics Canada, the average national salary is $40,000 per year, while the average salary for a certified, skilled tradesperson is $60,000. So, the plumber is laughing all the way to the bank (seriously. When was the last time you hired one? They cost a flipping fortune) while more and more people sit there with their Bachelor of Arts degrees unable to find work.

Looking for examples of well-paid trade jobs not requiring a degree? According to, the below are the highest-paying skilled trade jobs in Canada.

Many of these jobs can be obtained with two to four years – or even less – of post-secondary schooling. There’s also often the added benefit of earning while learning

“For many skilled trades jobs, you typically start out by taking a foundational or first-year program that may only take a few weeks to complete. Once you’ve successfully finished it, you can begin working as an apprentice in the field. Essentially, you’re paid to learn on the job and may return to school for a few weeks every year until you’ve reached the journeyman level.”

That said, job requirements vary from job to job. We omitted the first job on their list, “construction manager” as it most likely requires a bachelor’s degree on top of a trades education.

Wages are based on 2014-2015 data and projected job openings are for the period from 2015 to 2024.

The 10 highest paid skilled trade jobs in Canada that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.

1. Oil and Gas Driller

Median hourly wage—$35 Top-end hourly wage —$55 + Projected job openings—5,500

2. Power Line Technician

Median hourly wage—$34.65 Top-end hourly Wage—$44 + Projected job openings—8,400 (includes telecommunications line workers)

3. Pipefitter

Median hourly wage—$34 Top-end hourly wage —$45.69 + Projected job openings—9,800

4. Industrial Electrician

Median hourly wage—$33 Top-end hourly wage —$45 + Projected job openings—12,500

5. HVAC Mechanic

Median hourly wage—$29.76 Top-end hourly wage —$43 + Projected job openings—14,700

6. Civil Engineering Technician

Median hourly wage—$29 Top-end hourly wage —$47.12 + Projected job openings—10,600

7. Residential or Commercial Electrician

Median hourly wage—$29 Top-end hourly wage —$43 + Projected job openings—39,200

8. Heavy Duty Mechanic

Median hourly wage—$28 Top-end hourly wage —$42 + Projected job openings—31,400 (includes all auto mechanics)

9. Plumber

Median hourly wage—$28 Top-end hourly pay—$39 + Projected job openings—13,900

10. Carpenter

Median hourly wage—$25 Top-end hourly wage —$36 + Projected job openings—39,900

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