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Some states and community colleges offer free skilled trades courses


Young workers without a high school diploma are the most likely to switch jobs these days. Getting a professional credential of some kind can help them achieve higher pay and more stability. Alexandra Starr reports on a New York program that offers those courses for free.


ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: A little more than a dozen men sit in a basement classroom in Harlem. They are studying Plumbing 1 at LaGuardia Community College. In the front of the room, a student demonstrates how to cut a pipe.


STARR: Stephane St. Louis joins the applause. He arrived in the United States from Haiti as a teenager almost two decades ago. He first enrolled in community college when he was 18. His mom, who worked as a home health aide, paid for it.

STEPHANE ST LOUIS: My mom was working, like, two jobs. She was working, like, seven days. So I wanted something fast, you know? I wanted to make money to help my mom more out with the bills.

STARR: A friend told him he could get hired at McDonald's. He left school and soon was working more than full-time.

ST LOUIS: I worked there for a while, and I was also working at the airport - at JFK. So I used to do two jobs, you know, for seven days. No break.

STARR: His pay never topped $17 an hour. He wanted to go back to school to do a short course that could get him out of the cycle of service jobs. He didn't have the money for it, though. Then, a friend told him about a program at LaGuardia that would allow him to study a trade, like plumbing, for free.

ST LOUIS: You know, you only get those opportunity once in a lifetime. So that's why I wanted to do it.

STARR: It is unusual. States like Florida and Virginia offer financial support to students earning certifications, but they don't get full rides. Kenneth Adams is president of LaGuardia Community College. He raised money from New York City's philanthropic organizations by pointing to the city's huge job loss after COVID struck.

KENNETH ADAMS: And so in the spring of 2020 - think about it - the city lost a million jobs. And those were held, for the most part, by immigrants, people of color.

STARR: LaGuardia ended up raising $15 million to offer scholarships like the one Stephane St. Louis is on. Adams says he's very typical.

ADAMS: We're trying to attract students who want to go in a new direction and move from hospitality to health care.

STARR: And there are jobs for people studying for a certification in the skilled trades. Madelyn Shmidt has hired two LaGuardia-trained plumbers for her company, Long Island Clean Water Service. She wishes there were more of them.

MADELYN SHMIDT: If you can work with your hands - whether it's electricians or plumbers - you have it made for your future.

STARR: The federal infrastructure bill will create more of these kinds of jobs. Tony Carnevale is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

TONY CARNEVALE: The infrastructure bill is going to create a lot of good jobs. The estimates are between two and seven million jobs for high school graduates who get training.

STARR: Now, for the most part, these jobs don't pay as much as positions that require a bachelor's degree, but people with some postsecondary education do see a financial payoff. Their lifetime earnings are almost 20% higher than for people with just a high school diploma. At this point, the federal government doesn't provide much financial support to students who want to pursue a skilled trade, but Carnevale believes that will change.

CARNEVALE: We've come to the point where there's now bipartisan support for training. The votes are there.

STARR: The earliest that kind of bill could pass, though, is in the next Congress, after the midterms. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexandra Starr