As a young man I worked as journeyman carpenter, knowing I’d always be able to find work and feed my family. It was never clearer to me how important that job was than when I became an actor.

Connecting with craftsmen

I’m not the first in Hollywood to celebrate the trades. In the words of the legendary Spencer Tracey: “Acting is not an important job in the scheme of things — plumbing is.” America can live without celebrities. But if the lights go out, the water stops running, or the bridges fall, nobody will care if you won an Oscar.

Over the past 25 years, I’ve honored the trades and thousands of American manufacturers with a TV show, a book, a foundation and most importantly, I’ve raised children who know how to swing a hammer, level a beam and change a tire. My son had every opportunity to pursue anything he wanted to. He chose to become a pipefitter-plumber. I couldn’t be more proud of him.

Looking out for youth

With the introduction of “No Child Left Behind” and “Common Core” we elevated the ridiculous mission that every child needs to prepare for college. And yet, only 66 percent of high school graduates are going onto college. Have the remaining 34 percent been left behind? You bet they have.

It’s time for the educational elite to wake up and realize that not every kid is college bound. Even if they do take that path, our children are in desperate need of practical life skills—the ability to make something and the real self-esteem that comes with it.

“If the goal of an education is to prepare our students for a career, why are we completely ignoring the critical need for tradesmen?”

Consider those that don’t even graduate high school. Every day, nearly 7,000 students drop out, more than 1.2 million a year. Not only are they cheated out of a secure future, they’re costing taxpayers nearly $300,000 over a lifetime. What are we doing to give these kids a fighting chance? It’s negligent if not criminal that our schools aren’t preparing all students with an education that leads to realistic career paths.

Next, consider the shocking statistic that high school dropouts commit 70 percent of crimes in America. That is a tremendous burden on society, our economy and the individuals themselves who were deprived of a meaningful education that would have kept them in school and our communities safer.

Skills needed now

Let’s look at the millions of jobs available right now: machinists, welders, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, mechanics — all are going unfilled because there simply aren’t enough skilled individuals. If the goal of an education is to prepare our students for a career, why are we completely ignoring the critical need for tradesmen? Our educational system has forgotten that someone has to make those textbooks, computers, desks, pencils, light, heat and build the school itself.

Eliminating shop class has become detrimental to the very fabric of America. The average age of a skilled tradesman is 58-years-old, with no one coming up to fill those jobs. Consider the companies we so desperately want to remain in America. They can’t find the workers needed so they have two choices: hire foreign workers or move their manufacturing plants overseas.

I was at JFK airport recently and ran into a man who recognized me for my work with American manufacturing. He was on his way to Argentina to hire 20 welders, as he couldn’t find a single skilled welder in the greater New York area. There are more than 400,000 welding jobs available in America right now — jobs with amazing pay and a lifetime of work.

Many push the onus back on the companies saying it’s their responsibility to train skilled workers. Most companies do, but they can’t find enough men and women with critical thinking and basic skill sets to learn the jobs of the 21st century. If they were introduced to the trades when they were young — in elementary and high school shop class, for instance — they’d be much better prepared to learn the nuances needed to fill these jobs.

For years I’ve been talking about the industrial tsunami coming our way, the tipping point when we would literally run out of skilled tradesman. It’s here. We have the workforce; they just need the skills. The time is now to look at the full 360-degree effect of eliminating shop classes from our schools. The strength of our economy, the safety of our communities, the future of our infrastructure and the hope of keeping American manufacturing alive relies in great part on building the next generation of skilled tradesmen.