The U.S. economy continues to evolve in often unpredictable and confusing ways. We have record low unemployment, but record high inflation. While we have strong consumer spending, the S&P 500 is down 16% in 2022, and the Dow has slid over 11%. Understandably, many don’t know what to expect next.

But one recent piece of significant data did not surprise me whatsoever: the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that America now has 650,000 fewer undergraduate students enrolled than one year ago: that’s a drop of 5%.

Why was I not surprised? Well, at The LIME Foundation and NextGen Trades Academy, I interact with young people every day, and clearly many are seeing that skilled trades are an excellent career opportunity that does not require the massive amount of time and money (usually in the form of debt) required to get a college degree.

Take it from me, student debt can be crippling. It took me almost a quarter century to pay mine off. The NAACP recently explained how the $10,000 college debt forgiveness amount floated by the White House wouldn’t go nearly far enough for Black students. After all, they carry an average student debt of more than $50,000, even years after graduating. For many, there is a better way.

According to Rock the Trades, a workforce development initiative that raises awareness of the skilled trades as a rewarding career path, many people mistakenly believe the trades don’t pay well. In reality, though, it’s common for skilled trades workers to earn an average of $53,500 a year. Many earn much more. For example, construction managers who oversee building projects can make up to $165,000 a year. No college degree, or college debt, required.

In my case, as a 20-year-old Black woman attending college full-time, I started working in the roofing trade. Not only was this super fulfilling, but I could hardly believe how much money I was taking home. It was then that I decided to launch my career in building and roofing. Now I’ve been in the business for 26 years, 18 of them as the CEO of my own roofing company. It has been a fulfilling and lucrative journey for me.

After personally experiencing the potential to thrive via the skilled trades, it seemed clear to me that the next challenge was to provide similar opportunities for others. So, I brought my contractors together several years ago to brainstorm on our shared business challenges. We agreed they all boiled down to one huge issue: the workforce we needed was simply not out there. We couldn’t find enough young people to enter the trades, and our current employees were fast aging out of the workforce. This was a recipe for business disaster, and we knew we needed to act fast.

Eventually, I promised to launch The LIME Foundation and the NextGen Trades Academy if my contractors promised to mentor our young people and hire our graduates. Thankfully, they agreed to do both. Since then, we have demonstrated to numerous young people, many of whom have been dropping out of high school or getting into massive college debt (but still unable to find rewarding work) that the skilled trades are the route for them.

Our enrollees kick things off with an intensive and thorough three-week education and training program, including safety training, financial literacy and other workshops. Then we provide them with 18 months of support to find not just a job but a career in their chosen skilled trade. The LIME Foundation and NextGen Trades Academy are now helping build an engaged and debt-free generation of skilled, employed Americans. And of course, we are also creating a skilled workforce for the scores of businesses that need these workers to survive, let alone to thrive.

I can hardly express how happy it makes me, especially as a woman of color, to provide these career opportunities in the construction trades. The LIME Foundation and NextGen Trades Academy help many young people of color, some entangled in the juvenile justice system, to find a path in life and an honest, fulfilling way to support themselves and perhaps support a family one day. I cannot think of a better way to give back and pay it forward.

The LIME Foundation and the NextGen Trades Academy are now looking beyond our home in Northern California. We’d like to grow across the nation, to partner with communities and organizations that understand what the skilled trades have to offer young people. So, please don’t hesitate to reach out and let us know of your interest. Because we are very excited about this next step of the journey.


Letitia Hanke worked at a roofing company while in college, and eventually started her own firm, ARS Roofing & Gutters. Her vision to advocate for the disadvantaged inspired her to establish the The LIME Foundation, which works with at-risk youth, seniors and veterans, providing vital skills not only in construction but also in technology, health services, and music and the performing arts.


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