The death of construction workers has been well documented. Some put the shortage at over 600,000 workers for 2022 alone. The likelihood that the entire labor needs will be met is next to zero. After all, the industry currently has approximately 7.6 million employees, so to reach the projected number needed would mean the current workforce would increase by over 8%. What is the industry doing to grow the worker pool?
A deep-seated problem
The worker shortage is not a simple issue and requires thought-out and well-funded solutions. Because the challenge is so profound, it’s something everyone in the industry should be concerned about.
A recent Construction Dive article reported on a study that found 92% of contractors said they are finding it difficult to fill positions, and 42% have had to turn down work because of their shrunken workforce.
The article suggests the understaffing issue dates to the 1960s and 1970s, “…when the country moved from an industrial to a post-industrial, service-based business economy.” Entering the trades – including construction – has become viewed as secondary, while a college degree has become the ideal.
In 1969, there were 8 million students enrolled in colleges, of which 5.8 million were full-time students. In 2019, those numbers had risen to 19.6 million and 12 million respectively. This far outpaces the US population growth, which soared from 202 to 328 million.
“We’ve culturally devalued careers where you work with your hands and get dirty and you’re exposed to the elements,” Brian Turmail says to Construction Dive, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives for AGC.
Turmail adds that the federal government puts six times more funding into sending students to college than into career technical education, “… even though only about a third of the jobs in the United States require a four-year college degree.”
It starts in school
To get more students into the trades, there needs to be a fundamental shift in attitude towards the work. And it starts in school.
The TEXO Foundation, based in Dallas, is a non-profit whose mission is to create solutions for the labor shortage in the construction industry. They have three main focuses for outreach: high school, college, and the community.
In an interview with D Magazine (Dallas), Meloni Raney, CEO of TEXO discussed the organization’s efforts reaching high school-aged children.
There’s a Texas law that eighth-grade students must choose a technical route or a college route upon entering high school. “Once the legislature passed that into law, Texas high schools had to develop or re-energize their CTE—Career and Technical Education—programs. Our Foundation focuses on the high schools that have established CTE programs that offer a curriculum on construction, so we’re currently in around 44 high schools across our service area and reach about 6,000 students,” Raney says. Other outreach efforts by the school include involvement in school fairs and school boards and deeper more hands-on involvement.
Texo also works with colleges, specifically the Associated Schools of Construction (ASC), a professional association for the development and advancement of construction education. Texo works with the schools in region five (covering Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma) of ASC which have construction management programs. The support comes through, “…providing presentations in [the] classroom, helping students write their resumes, connecting them with TEXO members, and…” creating a competition to solve “real-world construction project problems.”
Other companies are taking matters into their own hands. Horizon International Group, a Houston-based construction services firm, got so frustrated by labor shortages that they decided to build a trade school to train new construction managers.
The school will be based in Houston. Instructors will have field experience (required to have $15 million worth of project experience. The company said they expect the program to cost approximately $600,000 and train 75 students. There’s no guarantee that graduates will work for Horizon, however, Al Kashani, vice president of Horizon, says thats “the cost of training.”
The Construction Education Foundation of Georgia, according to the New York Times, works with 175 elementary and secondary schools and reaches approximately 20,000 students. “In districts that fully adopt the program, students encounter construction education from second grade on, including themed lesson plans in math and science classes, and even apprenticeship programs in high school to help students graduate into the field with a job.”
Widen the pool
Traditionally, the construction industry has been made up primarily of white males. The New York Times cites the Department of Labor and notes that approximately 90% of those employed in the construction industry are white, while women make up 11% of the field. These numbers are despite efforts to make the industry more inclusive. The Times notes there are initiatives underway to reach underrepresented groups.
Project JumpStart, a Baltimore-based pre-apprenticeship program, has provided construction training for 800 people, most of them formerly incarcerated. Another program (from the Associated Builders and Contractors) has trained 1400 prisoners since 2010 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in carpentry and electrical work.
“When they come out of their incarceration period, they can fully re-enter society, and can better define their own long-term employment prospects,” said David Helveston, the local chapter president.
Other programs cited by the times include Birmingham, Alabama-based, Power UP. The program “…seeks to encourage, educate and place women in construction trades.” The organization’s partners in the trade unions reserve 15% of their jobs for program graduates (an increase from 10 percent five years ago).
Encouraging more people to choose construction is a major challenge. All the programs in the world will come to naught if people don’t recognize the benefits and impact of the construction industry.
A career in construction can lead to a fulfilling high paying career with opportunities for advancement. That career can be in the field or behind the scenes (both areas are understaffed). It can mean utilizing technology, being part of a team, and creating something that can positively affect hundreds or even thousands of people.