The construction industry is booming—according to MarketWatch, spending was 1.8% higher in April than March, the fifth increase of more than 1% in the last six months. But despite that, companies continue to struggle to find the workers they need.
We’ve heard a lot about the labor shortage in construction and other trades. Here at Grading & Excavation Contractor, all three Reader Profiles we’ve featured this year have cited labor shortages and finding employees as one of their biggest challenges. Despite the fact that there is good money to be made, companies struggle to fill jobs with skilled workers, and the shortage is only expected to worsen as baby boomers retire and construction in cities around the country increases.
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Millennials, who are on track to overtake baby boomers as the largest adult working population in America, seem like the obvious choice to fill the skills gap. Rather than entering the trades, however, many millennials have headed for college and a four-year degree, hoping it’ll offer them economic and job security. Unfortunately, those degrees don’t necessarily translate into steady jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for those between the ages of 20 and 24 (the youngest millennials) has averaged about 7% for the last year—3% higher than the national average. And we’ve all heard about millennials’ student loan problems. So why aren’t millennials trying the trades instead?
Forbes explains that the overemphasis on four-year degrees in the last 20 years is in part due to the misconception that trades are low-paying:
“It is true that earnings studies show college graduates earn more over a lifetime than high school graduates. However, these studies have some weaknesses. For example, over 53% of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. And income for college graduates varies widely by major—philosophy graduates don’t nearly earn what business studies graduates do. Finally, earnings studies compare college graduates to all high school graduates. But the subset of high school students who graduate with vocational training—those who go into well-paying, skilled jobs—the picture for non-college graduates looks much rosier.”
There are programs working to address the skills gap, especially for students in or just out of high school. In Florida, the Polk County school district has numerous academies that offer students experience, job skills, and career paths to less academic fields including robotics, agriscience, and construction, according to The Ledger, a local newspaper. In fact, Bartow High School’s Construction Academy is so popular that the Polk County School District is set to open four more academies in the fall.
“[The construction] program is a far cry from the days when ‘shop’ class meant hammering together a wooden magazine rack or step stool. Students at Bartow High’s advanced levels are building intricate lecterns, installing windows, and constructing concrete curbs,” reports The Ledger.
A similar project is coming next year in Charlotte, NC. The Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) will launch the Goodwill Construction Skills Training Center, where adults and high school students will be able to receive training and certification in construction skills free of charge. The Charlotte Observer reports that “after completing training, students have the opportunity to enter the workforce, apply for an apprenticeship, or transfer credit hours toward an associate’s degree at CPCC depending upon their chosen concentration.”
The success of programs like these proves that in order to see trades like construction as a viable option, students need to be presented with high-quality educational opportunities.
And exposure to these kinds of programs could go a long way to correcting misconceptions that careers in construction and other trades don’t pay well, are unstable employment, or are dangerous. Students can experience firsthand the new technologies that are making things like dirt-moving and heavy construction safer. Today’s recent graduates are well-equipped to use the new technologies changing the industry, like the combination of augmented-reality and ground penetrating radar (GPR) our editor wrote about last month or the increasingly automated construction equipment. They can also meet people in the industry and learn about the opportunities and compensation that skilled labor careers can offer. “You know what I’ve seen in the last 10 years? I’ve seen the wages of skilled tradespeople double,” says one contractor quoted in the Observer article.
Construction and other trades need skilled workers, but students need these opportunities too. Careers in the trades offer good pay and opportunities for growth and advancement without the four-year university price tag (and subsequent debt). It’s time to update the assumptions around what it means to work in the trades.
How would you like to see the skills gap addressed? What kinds of opportunities do you think the dirt moving industry can offer younger workers?