Addressing the Labor Crisis in the Construction Trades

Posted by Kris Lindahl on Thursday, January 24th, 2019 at 9:56am.

Addressing the Labor Crisis in the Construction TradesIt's a problem that's been brewing for a decade or more. There aren't enough skilled workers to keep up with the demand—across the country and across the wide spectrum of real estate and construction, from new homes to new high rises.

A Nationwide Crisis

Nationally, approximately 70 percent of contractors who responded to a survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors, noted that they had problems filling and retaining hourly workers. In the west, the percentage is often 75 percent or higher. It goes beyond the ability to pay higher wages; unemployment among construction trades is near an all-time low, at just 4.4 per cent in May, indicating a severe lack of available workers.

The shortage is critical for many reasons, and the problems extends far beyond boom towns and state boundaries, even though some firms have raised base pay by as much as 25 percent to attract new workers.

In Minnesota, Fox News 9 reported in August 2018 that the the most difficult positions to fill include electricians, concrete workers, cement masons, welders and pipe layers. Some local contractors have begun to recruit untrained workers and develop in-house training programs. A form of traditional apprenticeship program is another type of solution for some companies, and "shadow jobs" as well as formal and informal mentorships for students are on the rise in various parts of the country. There is a new appreciation of the need for diversity, for women, and for immigrants with specific skills. Skilled tradespeople, not only for construction jobs, but in agriculture, product distribution, automobile trades, health services and computer or information technology fields, as well as for personal services are in high demand in the construction industry.

There is also a growing recognition that a college education is not the path to success for all students.

Partnerships to Offer Training

A national endeavor with a mission to bridge the gap between students and employers, SkillsUSA has initiated a comprehensive program that works with school districts, teachers and industry executives to design workable solutions. The primary goal is to establish career and technical training programs in the schools, but an overriding concern is to identify the types of skilled labor pools that will be needed in the near future and to innovate solutions to meet those needs. It is also acknowledged that there is a need to instill in younger workers a new respect for employment in trades, crafts and specialty fields.

The focus includes, in addition to construction trades, agriculture, auto technology, cosmetology, criminal justice, engineering and information technology, among others. In some growing Texas communities, direct cooperation between municipal governments, schools, local business and students is an outgrowth of this new philosophy. Business executives and industrial employers in these trend-setting collaborations agree to fund special training programs that are administered by local school districts, in exchange for tax breaks and other incentives offered for relocation to a new community. In some cases, participating companies then guarantee jobs to program graduates.

Although the cooperative programs are still in their infancy, they hold much promise, and have been not only well-received, but well-supported and highly acclaimed. The solutions may not be easy, but many innovative new options are currently being introduced in markets throughout the nation.

Project Build Minnesota

Among the home-grown solutions to relieve the crisis situation in the building trades is a statewide Minnesota program designed to boost not only the numbers, but the perception of construction trades workers. The facts are impressive: In Minnesota, construction salaries, benefits and job security have risen in recent years, during a time when young college graduates face a less secure future and one that is often accompanied by the burden of debt associated with a high-priced degree.

Corporate and educational proponents note that more than 50 percent of construction workers enjoy their work and want to remain in the construction trades. Recent surveys also report that the average wage of construction workers in Minnesota ranges from the mid-$50s to upwards of $80,000 for some trades. And the program also points to the personal satisfaction of being able to say "I built that" as one of the benefits.

It seems to be working, and the statewide initiative has attracted the attention and the support of Shingobee Builders, one of several highly-respected professional construction companies. While their association with Project Build Minnesota is partially one of self-preservation, it is also part of a concerted effort to assure a better future for the state as a whole and for all its citizens.

If the construction industry cannot solve its labor problems, the cost will be high not only in terms of higher prices, but also in terms of diminished quality and slowed development. It's an encouraging way to address a current disturbing situation.

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