Harbor Freight Tools for Schools is the flagship program of the Smidt Foundation.  Everything we do to advance skilled trades education in America’s public high schools rests on three beliefs:

  • People who work with their hands are intelligent, creative, and deserve our admiration and support;
  • Students learning the trades can build meaningful careers, including pathways as leaders and entrepreneurs; and
  • Skilled tradespeople built and will build our country, serving essential and fulfilling roles in our communities.

To sharpen our own strategies and share what we’re learning, we commissioned two research studies to help answer the questions: What does high school skilled trades education in the U.S. look like right now? And what do we as a country think about it and want from it?

JFF undertook a landscape study of high school trades education in all 50 states, and NORC at University of Chicago conducted nationwide opinion research on attitudes about the trades from voters, parents and students. The headlines emerging from the two rich and detailed studies is that education systems are not yet meeting the needs of American students or of our country’s economy and infrastructure. Students, parents and voters want it fixed!  The big take-aways:

I. Support for skilled trades education is broad and deep – something that unites us as a country.

Students and their parents see the value of trades education, which also enjoys remarkably strong bipartisan support. In fact, the vast majority of parents — 89% — believe American students would be more prepared for success in a career if there were more opportunities to study the skilled trades. And more than 7 in 10 students (72%), parents (77%), and voters (89%) say high schools could do a better job preparing students for life after graduation by giving them more chances to learn real-world skills.

II. At least a million American students take skilled trades courses in high school every year.

Based on enrollment data from 32 states, an estimate of at least 1 million students study the trades nationwide. A substantial portion of these students “concentrate,” or take multiple, sequential courses in a trade.

III. There is a great need for skilled tradespeople in our country, and much better alignment is needed between high school trades offerings and workforce demands.

Across the country, there are far too few students enrolling in trades courses in high school, and often, those who do enroll are choosing fields that are less in demand.

In fact, there is no skilled trades field where current enrollment in high school programs is projected to meet even half of employer demand over the next decade. While a recession resulting from COVID-19 may reduce that demand in the near term, given these sizeable gaps, and the fact that much demand is driven by retirements, the need is still likely to outpace the availability of trades workers. This is further complicated by JFF’s findings showing a looming trades teacher shortage, and cuts to education funding that typically result from an economic recession.

In recent years, states across the country have invested in the quality and availability of their K-12 and postsecondary career and technical education programs. States have taken steps improve data collection and increase employer partnerships, dual enrollment, and teacher externship programs. Still, too many systems are dated and constrain innovation.

IV. Skilled trades education faces great stigma – or does it?

When we compare JFF’s landscape analysis with the results of the NORC poll, one paradox is that education leaders unanimously cite a stigma against trades education, but the opinion research strongly suggests there is far less stigma.  To us, this suggests not only a chasm in perspective between education insiders and the greater community, but also that the seemingly supportive views of the community do not find their way into policy-making.

V. Outstanding trades education prepares students for college, careers and life.

The best trades programs incorporate project-based learning, hands-on problem solving, and teamwork, as well as real-world experiences, high-quality industry certifications, paid apprenticeships, and credits toward an associate degree. This training puts students on a faster path to a career with family-supporting wages—and it provides soft skills that transfer well to any path after high school. In fact, when students take in-depth trades courses throughout high school they are more likely to graduate than their peers.

Apprenticeships are a bright spot in trades education, combining technical training and hands-on work experience with classroom instruction and the chance to earn college credit and degrees. Apprentices with the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers, for example, take classes in math, applied physics, mechanical drawing, and digital technology. The New York City Plumbers’ Union apprenticeship programs leads participants to a full associate degree.

In addition to certifications, skills, and workplace experience, a trades education also gives students an opportunity to work their way through college with a job that pays well — eliminating the need to take on significant college debt.

Why are we not prioritizing skilled trades education? Employers report a critical shortage of qualified workers. Students want to learn these skills, and their parents support them doing so. Voters across the spectrum are willing to pay for an increased investment in trades education, and say they will support candidates who make it a priority. This is a rare moment of opportunity for alignment among educators, industry, policymakers, parents, and students to fulfill the promise that trades education offers.  Let’s make the most of it.


To learn more, access the reports here. One other tool:  we developed the Platinum Standard, compiling the components of excellence in this sector.  We invite other funders to utilize it as a framework for their own grantmaking and to build capacity, partnership and results. We’d also love to learn with and from you, and to grow the circle of interest.  Please get in touch at or

Guest post by, Robin Kramer, Managing Director of The Smidt Foundation, and Erin Walsh, Consulting Program Director for Harbor Freight Tools for Schools.