Tackling the Job Shortage

OP COMMERICALBy Peter Dyga

The construction industry must meet three challenges in attracting and training workers with conversations and action. Culture changes in society, academia and construction companies are needed to sustain a labor force that’s undersized and in danger of shrinking.

About 500,000 construction jobs sit unfilled right now. Three converging forces threaten the labor force: A boom in construction is creating staffing shortages; Baby Boomers reaching retirement age at a rate of 10,000 per day is draining the pool of experienced employees; and efforts to attract young people to the industry are not working as they once did.

The bigger challenge is replacing employees who are retiring. We’re not attracting enough young people because the culture in high schools urges students to attend college and become a doctor or lawyer. When working with educators, the construction industry needs to change the view that certification programs are a lesser alternative.

Then there is the 25- to 35 year-old age group who are are more serious about life, want to improve on the job through training programs and will listen in a way most 17-year-olds won’t.

They must be recruited much differently than high school students. Traditional industry approaches such as Junior Achievement and Boys and Girls Clubs don’t apply to people who are turning 30 and are married. Industry organizations have advertised at music festivals, flown aerial banners at sporting events and placed ads on digital music and social media sites that appeal to that generation’s tastes. Once the construction industry interests those individuals, programs can provide them with task training and condensed skills training about the life-changing opportunities available in construction: good pay, prospects for advancement and further opportunities for education and training.

Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) chapters recently created training programs including one in Florida called “Ready, Set, Build.” The week-long program puts students through an OSHA 10-hour course that earns them a safety card. Other chapters offer a similar programs, including Project Jump Start, which provides 87 hours of intensive classroom instruction and hands-on training.

A Greater Understanding

Any program for a basic-skills worker should begin with an aptitude test to direct the person to a job in which he or she will find success and enjoyment. If the person loves the trade and shows competence within six months to a year, then he or she will want to enroll in an apprenticeship program as the next step in his or her career. With apprenticeship programs, the employer pays for the training. An entry-level worker who hadn’t thought about the trades until recently needs guidance.

The second challenge is the public’s misperception of construction. There’s still a sense that manual labor is less valuable than an office job, despite their extensive hands-on education. They graduate with a journeyman or master's licenses, and some of them – you might be shocked to find – have perfect attendance. It’s inspiring that people in the industry have such a passion for their craft.

Fortunately, there seems to be a greater understanding today that construction jobs are not second options. The change can be seen at the state level. The Florida legislature recently created a construction workforce development board like that in Alabama, Georgia and other southeastern states. Its first order of business was making legislative recommendations on how to improve the appeal of jobs in the trade.

The legislature recognizes that the vast majority of jobs of the future may not require a university’s four-year degree, but they might require a four-year certification in an apprenticeship program or similar program.

To change the culture in academia, the taskforce has recommended placing equal weight on enrollment in college and in training programs that lead to certifications in the construction trades. The institutions for training are already in place. The ABC invests about $1.1 billion a year in programs that train 476,000 people.

The technology for learning has been updated with online programs to allow a student to finish a program or learn on his or her time. Audiovisual equipment in the classroom, on-demand video and webinars, and taped lessons make it so that somebody who misses the class can follow the material. The programs produce highly capable, experienced graduates.

At the chapter level, we’re seeing enthusiasm and openness from educational institutions to expanding programs and providing more space and facilities as needed.

When government, educators, workers and employers start to see a new model for construction employment and training, you have hope. The industry still has challenges to making these jobs, half a million now and more to come, more appealing. Together, we can figure it out.

Peter Dyga is the president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) East Florida chapter, the largest commercial construction association in Florida. The chapter provides leadership and a recognized voice to the construction industry in the east Florida geographic region.

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