Mind the Gap

 SKILLED ED PIC 5What we can do about the skilled trades gap in the industry.   

By Todd Sachse and Steve Berlage

Skilled labor is the lifeblood of the construction industry. From carpenters to plumbers, those who have mastered a trade and honed a specialized skill set are a critically important piece of the construction puzzle. Unfortunately, structural economic issues – in conjunction with societal shifts and evolving perceptions with respect to the desirability of a career as a construction laborer – have contributed to a shortage of these skilled professionals. That shortage has been building for years, and what has been a frustrating inconvenience is quickly becoming a serious issue facing the industry. 

The significant shortage of skilled labor in many markets across the country is already creating stress on the construction industry, particularly in metropolitan areas that are experiencing growth. With less labor available, some projects are already taking longer to complete, which drives up costs and has a direct impact on the bottom line for construction companies.

The limited supply of construction trade workers is primarily the result of a generational imbalance in trade workers. The website HomeAdvisor reports that 78 percent of contractors are between the ages of 35 and 64 years old. As more of the current population of skilled workers above the age of 55 retire, with few candidates to replace them, this top-heavy demographic imbalance will likely get worse before it gets better.

To understand what steps can construction companies take to help solve this problem, industry professionals first need to understand what is causing this shift. 

An Emerging Problem

Over the last few decades, we have seen a significant cultural shift in the way society views construction trades. There is little doubt that this career – once well regarded as master craftsman – is now perceived as a less respected profession. That change in perception has very real implications, particularly among young adults considering different educational and career paths. More kids today see college as the preferred “default” choice, and even some of those who express an interest in pursuing construction labor are actively dissuaded by parents and guidance counselors.

Given the value that the industry places on construction trade workers, this change is especially frustrating. The mistaken notions that contractors do not earn a decent living, or that a career in a construction trade represents a menial career path could not be further from the truth. The reality is that contractors are out in the field reading construction drawings, using sophisticated technology and providing leadership on job sites. When you consider the fact that an electrician can make $70,000 a year (money.usnews.com), the paycheck concerns do not stand up to scrutiny.

Part of the problem is that students today overlook pursuing technical skills often taught at vocational schools because they simply are not aware of those nontraditional educational paths. Limited resources for career counseling in high schools is exacerbating the issue. With students largely unaware of vocational opportunities, and fewer colleges offering degrees in skilled labor, it’s easy to see how a general lack of awareness is limiting the influx of qualified young professionals.

With these trends already taking their toll, the duration and severity of the recession in the late 2000s – a downturn that had its origins in the housing market and consequently had a disproportionately significant impact in real estate and construction – served as a kind of perfect storm for construction workers. Job opportunities were scarce, and many who had just started in the business (or were considering a career as a construction laborer) either chose or were forced to instead pursue a different career path.

Today, not only are diminishing numbers of skilled laborers reaching a near crisis level, the fact that the population skews older is also a source of frustration for construction companies and developers. At a time when companies are pushing powerful new technologies into the field, seasoned workers tend to be less comfortable with that technology.

Potential Solutions

The question is, what can be done to turn these trends around? Certainly from a public policy standpoint, it makes sense for government on all levels to do its part to expand, fund and support programs that promote skilled trades and help educate and train aspiring young professionals. There is a strong argument to be made that attracting younger people to this industry is vital – not just for the industry itself, but for the larger economy – making this a wise civic investment.

But the lion’s share of the task falls upon the construction industry itself, and there is much that companies can do to help remedy the situation. The industry needs to support vocational technology and educational programs that expose students to careers in the construction trades and give them an opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience. 

Expanding that profile by coordinating with educational programs at all levels – including higher education – would also help combat stereotypes and enhance outreach. At the same time, construction professionals need to implement recruitment tools, marketing and communications outreach, and programs like the Maker Movement that present contractors as essential craftsmen.

Internships are among the most effective and important remedies. Companies that have established meaningful internship programs have almost universally found them be a tremendously positive experience. Not only are interns exposed to the industry in a positive way (something that has a strong ripple effect as those experiences are shared with friends and classmates), but the companies themselves benefit greatly from the enthusiasm, tech savvy ability and fresh perspectives that interns bring to the table. Far too many construction trade companies don’t even have a program – much less a good one.

Showcasing the benefits of trade skills can help alter the current perception that labor provides limited opportunities. Changing hearts and minds, and fundamentally altering the perception of construction workers may take time, but it is far from impossible. We only need look to Europe – where contractors are highly respected – to see a different mindset in action. The alternative is not appealing: a widening skilled labor gap, rising costs for new construction, longer timelines and potential opportunities for growth being negatively affected. 


 SKILLED ED PIC 4Todd Sachse (pictured left) is the CEO of Sachse Construction and Steve Berlage is the president. Sachse is a Detroit-based construction management firm recognized as one of the most trusted and respected construction partners in North America. The firm celebrated its 25th anniversary by hosting a Construction Academy event for 500 metro Detroit students this fall to teach the fundamentals and value of a career in the construction trades. For more information, visit www.sachseconstruction.com.


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