I went to trade school during law school. It left me stunned

I believe in the untapped potential of skilled trades

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Columnists

June 24, 2024 - 1:32 PM

As a student at Yale Law School, the author also attended a trade school, giving him a greater appreciation of the skills necessary to enter today's workforce. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Last month, I had the honor of walking the commencement stage at Yale Law School with my two children, ages 1 and 6 — a huge achievement for someone raised in New York City public housing. Equally important to me, however, was my other graduation, several months earlier, from Lincoln Technical Institute, a vocational school in East Windsor, Conn.

While several of my peers at Yale pursued joint JD/MBA degrees, degrees, I decided to wed my Doctor of Law with a diploma in manufacturing technology and machining.

I made that crazy decision in April 2022. The economy was rebounding from the pandemic and, surprisingly, though demand for manufacturing and goods had skyrocketed, millions of well-paid manufacturing and construction jobs remained unfilled. At some point during my studies, I stumbled on a report by the National Association of Manufacturers indicating that U.S. manufacturing alone — excluding the construction trades — was employing more than 12 million people in jobs with an average annual compensation of $85,000, yet a labor shortage persisted.

I was confused. Why was the nation was experiencing such a shortage? I was attending law school in a city with a 26 percent poverty rate and a median household income of $42,000. Throughout the greater New Haven, Conn., area, tens of thousands of skilled jobs remained open, but employers simply could not find enough talent to fill them. None of these jobs required a college degree, and for workers looking to continue their education, many came with opportunities for tuition reimbursement and on-the-job training.

Yet almost everyone I talked with in New Haven knew very little about the career opportunities in advanced manufacturing, or how to acquire the skills employers were looking for.

At the time, I was working as an entrepreneur-in-residence with a venture capital firm and exploring ways to use software to provide well-paid jobs to people in low-income neighborhoods. I believed that many Americans struggling in the labor market could benefit from well-paid jobs that didn’t require a college degree. Determined to understand the skills employers were seeking, I decided to enroll at Lincoln Tech myself.

On my very first day, I faced a sobering reality: There was just one other student in my machining class. By comparison, I had more than 50 peers in my Yale Law torts class. My graduating class at Yale seemed poised to produce dozens of “Big Law” attorneys, while Lincoln Tech would graduate just two machinists. I was stunned. Although I love the law, both as a profession and as a tool for social change, I also know that lawyers are better at billing clients than building and maintaining our nation’s critical infrastructure.

My journey from the hallowed halls of Yale Law to operating multi-axis CNC machines has been a testament to the manifold nature of learning and growth. These machines are hardly the punch-tape devices of the 1940s and ’50s. They come equipped with preprogrammed computer software that controls the movement of tools and complex machinery that processes metal parts for crucial industries, including the aerospace and automotive industries. The job of a machinist is to maintain and operate these machines, while creating tools and assembly parts through various machining methods, such as drilling, grinding and milling. The job requires a great deal of precision, as machinists often need to make cuts to metal stock at one-thousandth of an inch or less.

In typical lawyer fashion, for my first project at Lincoln Tech I machined … a metal gavel. I recall giving it to my 5-year-old son, whom I then had to prevent from putting it through the drywall in our home. I was incredibly proud after machining that first item, and I left class that day with a newfound respect for the craftsmanship and work of machinists. This was not only well-paid work, I realized, but also a form of art.

My Yale-to-Lincoln Tech path has reaffirmed my belief in the untapped potential of skilled trades. It has shown me that the future of American prosperity depends not only on lawyers and executives but also on machinists, welders and all skilled tradespeople who are the backbone of our economy. But we must reshape the narrative around skilled trades and foster a cultural appreciation for these essential careers. Government initiatives such as President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which included $300 billion in manufacturing expenditures, are doomed if they do not do this. There is real concern that many of the new factories developed as part of Biden’s “Manufacturing Renaissance” will become white elephants because of an under-skilled U.S. workforce and a lack of awareness about the benefits of careers in advanced industry.

You may be wondering what exactly I plan to do with my own two diplomas. I plan to build a software-driven recruitment company that helps people find good careers in the skilled trades and advanced industry. I want to pave the way for a new generation of workers who can thrive in the advanced manufacturing renaissance, driving innovation and growth for decades to come.

But I also like to finish what I start — quite like that gavel I machined at Lincoln Tech — so I will take the New York bar exam in 2025. You never know when some legal expertise — or that gavel — might come in handy.

About the author: Darnell Epps is a recent graduate of Yale Law School and the founder and CEO of Thurgood Industries.

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