Sabastian Kleis, the son of a waitress from Rust Belt Ohio, was supposed to be the first person in his family to graduate from college. Instead, he dropped out of Kent State University after two years. By most accounts, Kleis, 24, should be flipping burgers. But on a recent afternoon a lumber company was grooming him for a management job.
One of the nation’s largest building-supply chains, 84 Lumber Co., spends millions on ads to drive home its message that learning a trade can be more valuable than earning a college degree. The company pays manager trainees about $40,000 a year, and that’s just the beginning. Those in charge of top-grossing stores can earn $200,000, and in a few cases more than $1 million, including bonuses. Yet, astonishingly, its recruiters have had trouble finding qualified takers.
84 Lumber is in the vanguard of a corporate quest to solve a labor market conundrum: Skilled and high-paying blue-collar jobs go unfilled, while millions take on loans to pay for degrees of dubious financial value. “You can go to college and learn the theology of the Roman Empire,” says Kleis, who just completed a three-day training program at 84 Lumber’s rural Pennsylvania headquarters. “You learn all this ridiculous nonsense, and when you get out, what are you applying that to? I know how to frame a house.”