Giving to Teach Trade Skills, a Donor Zeroes in on an Overlooked Ladder to Opportunity

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This fall, eighteen teachers and programs will split $1 million from Harbor Freight Tools for Schools, the flagship initiative of the Smidt Foundation, the philanthropy of Eric Smidt, CEO and co-founder of the discount tool supplier Harbor Freight Tools. The grants are part of the foundation’s Prize for Teaching Excellence competition, which is now in its third year. According to a release announcing this year’s 50 semi-finalists, three top recipients will receive $100,000, $70,000 for the school program and $30,000 for the teacher. Others will receive $50,000, with $35,000 for the school and $15,000 for the teacher. A robust 749 applicants sought the awards this year. 

Smidt and the Awards

We profiled Smidt and his interest in the skilled trades back in May. He started Harbor Freight Tools at 17 with his dad in 1977, and now has an estimated net worth of nearly $3 billion. He has said that he started Harbor Freight Tools for Schools to “strengthen and bring back… classes to give students a path to a skilled trade and a good-paying career." 

The teaching and skilled trade program awards are not Smidt’s only forays into philanthropy. Through his family foundation, he and his wife Susan gave a major gift to the Los Angeles County Art Museum in 2016, and another sizeable gift to Cedars-Sinai Hospital in 2018. They also founded the Alliance Susan & Eric Smidt Technology High School, a public charter school in Los Angeles and part of the LAAlliance network of 25 charters. 

Not STEM

While other donors and charities are active in funding skills-based, career-focused education, many of those efforts focus on STEM training—science, technology, engineering and math. Efforts to support computer coding and robotics education are common examples. 

The Harbor Freight grants and awards are distinct in that they focus on non-STEM trades such as carpentry, automotive technology and maintenance, agriculture machinery, HVAC and welding. This area is frequently overlooked by education leaders and in philanthropy. “Skilled trades teachers have this incredible passion for their students and their craft, and a lot of them bring distinctive industry experience to the classroom,” said Danny Corwin, executive director of Harbor Freight Tools for Teachers. “Yet skilled trades teachers have been undervalued for decades. We want to shine a light on their brilliance and give them the respect and honor they deserve.”  

Smidt’s passion for investing in skilled trade education reflects his personal experience. “He had a great, terrific teacher, and was proud to learn a skill,” Corwin said. “Now, he wants to strengthen and grow those classes so students can have pathways to great careers.” 

The Stigma Gap

Even though electricians, plumbers and HVAC technicians earn good incomes and have steady work, many young people steer away from these career paths. “The skilled trades face what we call a ‘stigma gap,’” Corwin said. “The general assumption seems to be that these jobs are dirty and undesirable, but tradespeople themselves report being really fulfilled by their work, and on top of that, they’re well-paid.”     

This stigma may make giving to shop-style teaching and learning less sexy for philanthropists. But Corwin argues that funders need to think differently. “Our country is facing a shortage of skilled tradespeople right now, and it’s only going to get worse. Without major support for skilled trades education from K-12 on, these important, good jobs will go unfilled, and families and communities across the country will struggle as a result. This is an urgent area for philanthropy to consider,” he said. 

That’s a view shared by teachers. “I feel that our program is specializing in the right skills for our students to be successful,” said J. Heather Handler, a manufacturing and machining teacher at Mount Pleasant High School in Delaware, and one of the 50 prize semi-finalists. “Harbor Freight is reinforcing the belief that we can help fill the gap of skilled trades workers,” she said.

Forging Community 

The Prize for Teaching Excellence mirrors other philanthropic efforts in trying to build a community around the winners and use their experiences to advance pedagogy. Corwin said the program drew inspiration from the Drucker Prize, a $100,000 award given for more than 25 years, and places special emphasis on sharing the innovations of its winners and applicants.  

In addition to the financial awards for programs and teachers given out through the Prize for Teaching Excellence, he said, “Each year, we bring all our prize-winning teachers together for three days to participate in an institute, Let’s Build It, where we challenge them and ourselves to work to improve and grow the field of excellent skilled trades teaching.”

In a few months, a dozen and a half teachers and their schools will be recognized and rewarded for their efforts in overlooked skilled trades.