How Do We Fill the Lack of Skilled Construction Workers?

Up 3 percent from January 2016, construction spending in 2017 totaled $1.180 trillion (seasonally adjusted annual rate). Between March 2016 and March 2017, private residential construction increased by 5.9 percent, while multifamily residential construction jumped 9 percent year-over-year. Additionally, there is a potential boost in demand for construction that will support broader economic growth as the president calls for new legislation that will provide $1 trillion in investments to rebuild aging infrastructure.

This possible boom is great news for the economy and job outlook. The problem, however, is that there are not enough skilled construction workers to fill the current demand. In fact, the construction industry workforce has been dwindling over the years, starting with a huge loss of talent during the last downturn. Couple this with a lack of vocational education at schools and a cultural shift away from traditional blue-collar work, and it’s no surprise that there are nearly 200,000 construction industry jobs going unfilled in America. That’s a jump of 81 percent in just two short years.

More recently, there’s been a rapid uptick in construction industry activity fueled by low interest rates, leaving a graying labor pool to struggle with the immense demand. Projects are being pushed by months in many cases due to the labor shortages. To recoup the added cost of delays, more and more builders are being forced to take on luxury projects instead. This tends to leave the door open for unscrupulous unlicensed contractors to take advantage.

The problem really begins at the ground level. Increasingly, students are told that to be successful, they must go to college. At the same time, dwindling school budgets have led to cuts in vocational classes. The result: A severe lack of training programs for the next generation of construction talent. Nobody is taking the time to train and apprentice workers. Vocational training is difficult to find and has been all but eliminated in many U.S. schools.

However, some innovative solutions are coming into play to help address the talent shortage in construction. For example, the Home Builders Institute (HBI) is pushing for high school vocational programs that can help students access internship opportunities with professionals, thereby providing them with quicker paths to solid jobs once they graduate. HBI is also offering educational programs geared toward at-risk youth, veterans, and ex-offenders to give them immediate opportunities that don’t require college degrees or the loans that often accompany those degrees. These programs can also be ideal for students who could benefit greatly from being exposed to different possibilities and alternative paths in school.

A pair of school districts in central Colorado recently converted a shuttered middle school into a Career Technical Education Facility with a woodworking shop and vocational training center. Collaborating with local industry partners who provided materials and tools to help shape the curriculum, the training center is preparing students to leave with the skills they need for industry-related jobs.

Given the success of this program, the district partnered with approximately a dozen area schools to send students to study at the center. Offering a wide variety of options in construction, woodworking, and metals for both students and the industry, this new facility demonstrates the opportunities these unique partnerships can create even during a time of budget cuts.

If you are looking for work but don’t have experience or a college degree, I encourage you to consider a career in construction. Many construction companies also offer great benefits packages, including 401(k)s, medical, dental, and so on. The future of the construction industry is bright, and getting the right training will help more individuals launch their construction careers.

Gregory Norman is the president and founder of BathMasters, a Virginia-based plumbing, electrical, and building contractor.