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Where Did the Construction Workers Go?

The shortage of workers is evident every time you go out to eat. It is inconvenient and sometimes frustrating to wait for your food, but you know you will eventually get fed. 

This labor deficit as seen in the construction industry, however, goes well beyond bothersome. The lack of skilled workers is slowing the delivery of crucial public sector and commercial projects. This shortfall impacts the completion of healthcare facilities, schools, bridges, roads, data centers, airport terminals and retail properties, while also eroding the narrow margin of profitability the industry already suffers from. 

While all employment sectors have felt the pinch of labor loss since 2020, the construction industry was experiencing a shortage long before the pandemic impact. Skilled trades are vital to life as we know it, but they are also physically demanding and risky. Wages sometimes lag behind other non-degreed positions and obviously there is no possibility of working remotely. These factors make recruiting difficult. 

But the future is bright for these jobs. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages grew by 8% in 2021, reflecting intense competition for these employees. A study released by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will save or spur 15 million jobs over the next 10 years. It is estimated those jobs will increase the share of infrastructure jobs from 11% to 14% of all jobs in the country. 

Per the Georgetown study, the infrastructure program would create 8 million jobs for workers with a high school diploma or less, 4.8 million jobs for workers with more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree and 2.25 million jobs for workers with bachelor’s degrees and above. 

The jobs that would require the highest level of educational attainment would require the most training. Of the jobs created through the infrastructure program, 60% would require six months of training or less, and 40% would require more than six months of training. 

So, how can these jobs become top of mind for future workers?  

The benefits of the construction trades needs to be shared with students, as early as middle school and certainly high school. For those with entrepreneurial spirits, having the ability to start one’s own business – once trained – is appealing. It can be a career … not just a job. It is not flexible in the way that remote workers enjoy, but these business owners can determine their own schedules to a degree. 

This requires educational leaders to reimagine “shop class,” an elective already whittled down when school boards are balancing budgets and anything beyond reading, writing and ‘rithmetic is put on the chopping block. Giving children the satisfaction of creating with their hands in a school setting can put them on the path to careers in the lucrative jobs of electricians, plumbers, carpenters and masons. 

Between 2004 and 2017, federal investment in career technical education in public schools declined by $77 million, according to the Advance CTE advocacy group. Changing that poor trajectory, the Career & Technical Education Bill was signed into law in 2018, which will pump $1.2 billion into secondary and post-secondary training. That will hopefully go a long way in attracting trade talent. 

Another benefit? The cost of training for these jobs is dramatically lower than the price of a university degree. The average student loan for recent college graduates is now $31,000, according to the Education Data Initiative. 

The more in demand these jobs become, the more construction companies will have to pay for them. It is basic economics. The Associated General Contractors of America reported this summer that 93% of its membership had openings for skilled trade workers. That smacks of enviable job security during a time of falling markets and rising interest rates. 

Today’s young workers are comfortable with technology, and they expect their employers to provide the tech that can make their work easier, safer and more efficient. Included in that is a construction project management information system that allows all levels of management and workers to access real-time data, make decisions based on a single source of truth and communicate in a space open to all. 

In a scenario where much is beyond the control of construction project leaders – such as career tech education investment and prevailing misconceptions about the good life trades workers can experience – they must do all they can to make potential employees feel valued.  

About the Author

Patricia McCarter is Senior Industry Content Manager at Kahua specializing in Government and Commercial Construction. She engages in high-level executive communications, messaging strategy, social media and content marketing, bolstered by a background in journalism.

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