On the issue of helping Black people take a role in the modern workforce, especially the trade industry, Rep. Brenda Lawrence set the tone.

Rep. Brenda Lawrence was the opening speaker for a recent panel discussion that she sponsored entitled “Putting Black America to Work: the New Skilled Trade Workforce,” at the 47th annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference.

“We are building a new bridge from Detroit to Windsor (Canada),” Lawrence (D-Mich.) said at a recent panel organized by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. “I’ve been told we are bringing in welders from Vietnam to help build it.”

It seems unfathomable that the United States, a country with a population of approximately 330 million, has to import welders from another country—especially when some of those unionized trade jobs pay $30, $40 or $50 an hour. However, as Lawrence said, “One of the trade skills in big demand now is for welders.”

Lawrence noted that the average age of skilled trade workers is 53, and said that the trades are one industry that needs an infusion of youth, especially from the Black community.

Lawrence was the opening speaker for a recent panel discussion that she sponsored entitled “Putting Black America to Work: the New Skilled Trade Workforce,” at the 47th annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference, held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest D.C.

Moderator Ed Gordon, a popular television and radio talk show host, quickly pivoted and asked the panel members to address two issues:

Why are young Black folk seemingly shying away from the trades, such as welding, plumbing, construction, electricity, heating and air conditioning, post office positions, railway occupations, etc?

How do Black folks overcome the perception that the U.S. economy provides only two tracks for young Black people: athletics and entertainment?

“We have to stop demonizing trades,” said Tyra M. Metoyer, manager of External Mobilization for the American Petroleum Institute. “These skills pay well; you can build your life around a skill you use in a trade. But some parents say, ‘I didn’t work hard all my life to not send my children to college.”’

Trades are a practical approach for an individual to ride a blue-collar occupation into the middle-class world.   

“In Washington D.C., we have the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program,” said Odie Donald II, director of the D.C. Department of Employment Services. “With these young people, I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to work in the trades, it’s more about them knowing how to find where the work is.”

In this computer and digital age, young workers often need more than just a high-school diploma, but without the burdensome mountains of debt incurred from earning a degree at a four-year colleges.   

“General Motors has a special program for young people, to teach high school students how to get into the area of service technology,” said Maurice Williams, general manager of GM Sales Support Functions. “It’s for that student who doesn’t want to go to college but has that mindset to get into skills they are good at.”

Damien Hooper-Campbell, Chief Diversity Officer at eBay in San Jose, Calif. said that showing youth how trade occupations can benefit their language skills may make getting a trade more attractive to them.

“Maybe we can get some of our artists who can have a great influence on young people,” Hooper-Campbell advocated. “Artists like Jay Z. I’m a hip-hop head, even at 39 years old. Our young people can learn from Jay Z about other areas of music. Maybe not become a rapper but work on the technical side of music. These hip-hop artists can speak to that.”

Gordon said he tries to introduce young people to the world behind the microphones and behind the cameras to show them other possibilities.

“When kids come into our studios,” Gordon explained, “I let them see our control room. To let them see the technicians as well as the camera people—the people behind the scenes.”