Workforce Development

The single biggest issue facing the construction industry is the development of its future workforce. That workforce will, by necessity, need to look very different from the workforce of the past. The construction industry has provided many people, including myself, with a fulfilling, dynamic and economically satisfying career. As a young girl, I learned about construction from my grandfather, a homebuilder, and my father, a concrete contractor and developer. Building was in my blood from a very early stage. It is imperative that those of us from the Baby Boomer generation do everything we can to reach out to young people and introduce them to the great careers in the construction industry. 

Construction provides good paying jobs for individuals willing to work hard at multiple levels from skilled and unskilled labor to supervision, management, and ownership.  It is our responsibility to introduce the future labor force to the opportunities in the construction industry through play, education, and mentoring. We need to share our passion by igniting it in others.

Industry Trends

A summer 2014 federal employment data analysis report conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) showed that construction employment between July 2013 and July 2014 expanded in 223 U.S. metropolitan areas, declined in 72, and was stagnant in 44. However, an AGC/SmartBrief survey conducted during the same time shows that 25 percent of the 500 surveyed firms were turning down work because of a lack of available skilled and professional labor. 

Another AGC analysis from fall 2013 surveyed 700 construction firms. Seventy-four percent responded that they were having difficulty finding qualified craft workers and 53 percent responded that they were having difficulty finding qualified professionals such as supervisors, estimators or engineers. The majority agreed that things are only going to get worse. 

Though data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) at the time of this writing looks promising — 6.1 million employed in the construction industry with a seven percent unemployment rate, compared to 5.6 million employed and 13.3 percent unemployed in 2011 — demographic percentages remain low for women and minorities within the industry. According to a May 2014 BLS data book, women comprised merely 9 percent of the construction workforce in 2012, despite their 47 percent labor share in the overall workforce. Additionally, a 2012 Forbes diversity report shows respectable ethnic diversity within the construction labor force, with Hispanics accounting for more than 40 percent of the labor—though these numbers decline at higher levels of management and leadership. 

A 2013 report from the Partnership for a New American Economy forecasts that there will be a “shortfall” of 230,000 advanced-degree Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) workers by 2018, despite STEM-related fields paying 26 percent higher wages than non-STEM fields, according to US Department of Commerce. The STEM fields also continue to have low women and minority participation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, African Americans comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population and 11 percent of students beyond high school. In 2009, this population received a mere seven percent of STEM-related bachelor’s degrees. Additionally, according to a 2011 report from the US Department of Commerce, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, despite comprising almost half of the US workforce. We need to go beyond the office to create early introductions to the industry among young people.

Private Sector Solutions

As school systems continually face funding and regulatory issues, often making it difficult to staff or implement STEM-related educational programs, helpful solutions are emerging from the private sector to correct these shortcomings. The Future City Competition, for example, is sponsored by DiscoverE (formerly the National Engineers Week Foundation), and engages middle school students to address urban design solutions using SimCity gaming software. This year also marks the 24th annual Bridge-Pal competition, which was developed by Bradley University CEC chairman Dr. Amir W. Al-Khafaji in 1991 to engage middle and high school students with engineering skills as well as values of service and citizenship in a fun, competitive environment. These programs successfully couple digital literacy and engineering, both of which are essential to the future vitality of our industry. 

Another excellent example of emerging, dynamic ways to introduce youth to the industry is GoldieBlox, the set of building toys and problem-solving apps invented by mechanical engineer and GoldieBlox CEO Debbie Sterling. Sterling developed GoldieBlox with the intention of  “disrupting the pink aisle” at the toy store with smart, fun toys intended to introduce young girls to the STEM field. Like Legos or Lincoln Logs, GoldieBlox are unobtrusive and educational and can inspire interests in the STEM field, which can then grow into a passion for architecture, construction and engineering. This is then where programs like the ACE Mentor Program become important. Founded in 1994, ACE engages sponsors and volunteer mentors from the industry to provide guidance, scholarship and real-world experience that offer an early introduction to the industry. According to ACE data, ACE Mentor Program participants graduate high school at a higher rate than their non-ACE peers.

Progress in our industry will come first from recognizing the social, economic and demographic factors presently affecting our industry culture. But change needs to start at a simple level: let young people in your own life and in your community know about your own career and others in design and construction. Passion knows no gender or color. It only needs a spark. 

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