It’s Time to Fix the Construction Industry’s Skills Gap

It’s been about five years since the construction industry started its slow recovery from the Great Recession. Flash forward to today and the industry has rebounded nicely with construction spending at an all-time high and demand for construction is strong. The only problem? The industry is still dealing with a skills gap and labor shortage caused by layoffs and a mass exodus of skilled workers who retired or chose to seek greener pastures when the economy tanked.

Today, construction firms across the country are finding it harder and harder to hire skilled workers to match the growing demand for construction. Contractors are having to turn down work because they don’t have the skilled labor to keep up with their current backlogs.

The 2017 Construction Outlook Survey, conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), shows that 73% of firms are planning to hire more workers. The survey also shows that 73% of firms are having a hard time filling positions and 75% expect it to remain hard or become harder to find qualified construction professionals to fill their vacancies.

While a lot of folks predicted the labor shortage, few in the industry did much to address it properly at the time. Now, companies, along with federal, state and local governments are trying to find creative ways to attract and train workers for careers in construction.

The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) used a grant from the USDOT to provide training targeted to women, veterans and minorities for careers in construction. The three-week course focused on heavy equipment operation on a range of machines from backhoes and excavators to rollers and forklifts.

The ITD was one of eight states to receive “Ladders of Opportunity Initiative On-The-Job Training/Supportive Service (OJT/SS)” grants from the Federal Highway Administration to “improve the apprenticeships and training opportunities for underrepresented or disadvantaged people seeking careers in transportation, engineering or construction.” The other state transportation departments receiving grants included: California, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Th Minnesota Jobs Skills Partnership has provided grants to community colleges and businesses to create training programs for several different industries. One grant, worth $350,000 was recently awarded to Anoka-Ramsey Community College and API Group to provide training over two years to 571 workers on new construction technologies, field leadership and work processes.

Last month, the president signed an executive order to expand apprenticeships by reducing the government’s role in creating apprenticeship programs and turning it over to third-party groups such as labor unions and trade associations. If President Trump ever hopes to get his $1 trillion infrastructure plan off the ground, the industry is going to need a substantial number of new workers to build it all.

Vocational training is also making a resurgence with states starting to allocate more resources to career and technical education programs at the middle and high school levels. California has committed $1.5 billion to improving career and technical education programs across the state. Part of the money is going to help public schools, community colleges and companies establish partnerships to create programs to prepare students for careers.

Establishing training programs to meet the growing demand for skilled labor is only part of the equation. The construction industry also has an image problem it needs to address. It’s hard to attract workers when people think that construction work is dirty and dangerous with low pay, poor benefits and little opportunity for career advancement.

This is why programs like the Go Build initiative which “seeks to enhance the image of the construction industry and inform young people, parents, and educators about opportunities in the skilled trades” are so important. The program started in Alabama back in 2010 and expanded to Georgia in 2012, Tennessee in 2016 and just launched in California back in May. Sadly, the Go Build Georgia initiative ended this year.

Tackling the construction labor shortage and skills gap the industry is facing is no easy task, but it’s only going to get harder as demand for construction grows.

9 thoughts on “It’s Time to Fix the Construction Industry’s Skills Gap

  1. none of these programs will address the lack of skills inherent in the undocumented workforce we are now totally dependent upon.
    Any increase in funding for infrastructure Projects will only exacerbate the problem.
    The Feds need to make loan programs to building developers, not throw money at Road Builders–that was the Obama solution that did not pay off for the Industry as a whole.

    1. I’m a pervious construction owner that step back an open up a school in San Diego CA were we offer construction training with live classes and online classes. What’s different about what we do is our signature Trade Focus Estimating and Blueprint Reading classes. We get a lot of attention from the construction industry but it’s a struggle to get the word out to more people.
      Please visit our website for more info: http://www.constructionentrepreneurs.com

  2. Government funding will only help if it is given as an aid to help existing SUCCESSFUL programs expand. The last thing we need is government bureaucrats playing social experiment games when they know nothing of construction except the numbers they see on charts. Successful programs are not measured in politically correct body counts but in people who are hired because they have needed skills. Don’t know the details and could be wrong but a 3 week program sounds like a joke – especially to those of us who worked our way up through the ranks over years.

    Construction is hard dirty work and low pay for those starting out – no way to sugar coat that. But the rewards are there if the applicant shows initiative and drive. A good worker can move up fairly quickly because the mass of low initiative workers are easy to rise above. The extremely low skilled – including the undocumented people – need to either get trained or exit the industry. As a consumer I would not want any building I would ever own to be built by highly unskilled people. We won’t accept that from the food industry, auto industry or medical industry – so to suggest that it can somehow be tolerated in the construction industry is ludicrous. In fact, throwing money blindly at the problem to allow the expansion of the current state of affairs is wrong. The lack of skilled workers, while a problem, is in one way acting like a brake pedal on what could become a much larger problem – and that is construction of large numbers of even lower quality buildings. I know construction quality and it has fallen drastically over the last 3 decades. THAT is what we need to change more than anything else and we need to do it in an environment that is rapidly changing due to new technology. Yes, training is desperately needed in the right way – but most of us will learn on the job and not in a classroom. I have been around union and non-union trades but I prefer the unions ONLY BECAUSE OF THEIR TRAINING. I would strongly suggest that since most all trades can and do travel, that there be a national set of minimum skill standards that everyone in the industry in ANY trade must meet – even laborers. That requirement would raise the level of skills needed to work in the construction industry. It would also solve another issue – the complaint that unions have of competing with non-union trades. The difference between the two is that non-union trades do not train anyone. Any warm body is acceptable and that is why their costs are so low. Increase the requirement for training will make them increase their costs and make them more competitive to unions and the quality will go up for the consumers. If the average person knew what was going on now in construction at the low end they would be appalled.

    And to suggest that there is something wrong with having to work hard under tough conditions is typically the kind of statement from someone who does not understand the working class. There is actually a sense of self-satisfaction from working hard all day and being part of a team that puts a roof over the head of others so they can ply their own trade. Without those of us who toiled in the field to erect the buildings there would be no stadiums or skyscrapers or housing. Hard work is not a curse but a joy. But that description also describes the image problem that construction has. We did not put it on ourselves by the way. We have been laughed at and made fun of for decades by arrogant ‘professionals’, elitists and Hollywood. Yes we are not rocket scientists but without our skills and often crude methods or crass mannerisms there would be no rocket launch platforms. We work hard and play hard. So don’t try to sugar-coat what we do or the conditions under which we work so it can be neatly packaged and sold like part of a con game or sales pitch. The truth is what it is. We want people working with us who want to be where we are rather than feel like they got short-changed. We would actually rather be out there in the fresh air than cooped up inside of an office. We like what we do – a lot. And that is what should be known by others – that ours is a very very rewarding profession. That is how we want to be known.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Mark. I think some of the shorter programs being offered are more to get folks interested in construction and to show employers they have some basic training and are willing to learn and start their careers. We weren’t suggesting that there is anything wrong with construction, just that it doesn’t have the best reputation for those who don’t work in the industry. Having worked construction jobs in the past, I understand that yes it can be hard but it can also be extremely satisfying and rewarded.

  3. Labor issues have been brewing within the entire industry for the past 40 years or so and won’t be fixed overnight. Academia has steadily steered young people away from careers in the trades for a variety of reasons and philosophies need to change. Yes construction is dirty, dangerous, hot, cold, uncomfortable and any other adjective you care to conjure up but it is also rewarding and exciting for a variety of reasons. Today’s construction market demands more skill level than ever before and gives individuals a creative outlet that very few industries can provide. But like anything, you get out of it what you are willing to invest in it. The industry needs all levels of mechanics with skills to not only perform at introductory levels but that also have the passion, drive, and ambition to excel and lead the generations that follow. Construction is alive and thriving and needs people wanting to leave their personal marks on skylines across this great country.

  4. With the losses of unions, there has been more and more reliance on training within construction companies that provide on-site workers skilled in every trade. Compounding the problem is the reliance on having to train and invest time in people who are migrant by choice. Lets not kid ourselves. There is nothing dumb about migrant workers who buy a house here, invite three or four of their buds to move in with them, charge them little rent and let them work their rent of in the evenings by renovating the house, using the skills and tools we give them, then selling it in six months or a year and making a large profit that they take back to their home and use to buy large farms and land parcels that will help support their families. After getting that established, they return and do it all over again so they can afford to build homes on the land and buy equipment to farm it. They have a plan and are smart and industrious in achieving it.
    What the construction industry has to do is to find some way to deal with a migratory workforce that rotates every six months or more and gets back the people you have invested your time and training in, without them going to work for someone else for .50 cents more an hour when they return.
    We also need to make it clear to the politicians that making that workforce criminals, which makes them ineligible to get any work visa in the future after being labeled as criminals, is a lost investment to construction companies that have invested in them previously. The very fear of being labeled as such has made many of them leave already.
    Americas should understand that this is nothing new. the Irish, the Asians and Italians were moving in and out of this country since Clinton’s Ditch and the first rail was set to run on. Now it’s the Latino’s, and in the future it will be someone else.
    We are a land of opportunity which is one of our best characteristics. It’s only when we limit those opportunities to a select few that we all suffer.
    In the mean time, we need to invest in programs like BOCES and college level construction training with new degrees available in trade specific skills and techniques that pay well.

  5. I agree with Michael. Over the years our educational system has brainwashed our young people to believe that if you don’t go to college you’re a loser. This can cause a young person that knows they’re not “College Material” to tune out or drop out, ending up without even the basic skills needed to be employed. How many times have you heard the saying ” if you don’t get your grades up you’re going to end up digging ditches” We’ll I know a lot of “ditch diggers” that make pretty damned good money, and no, they aren’t losers.
    Over the years I’ve seen a lot of money wasted on government training programs that really haven’t been successful at all. Most to the money allocated is usually lost in the bureaucracy up front before the program even gets off the ground. Instead, why don’t we give this money in the form of tax breaks to the contracting companies that end up doing most of the hiring and training themselves anyway?
    As an employer I see that one of the major obstacles when hiring these days is the the work ethic. It was instilled into my generation by parents that went through the depression that were happy to just have a job. Each generation removed from this a little more of it is lost.
    This work ethic shows up in newly immigrated people coming from countries that don’t have the opportunities we have here. We need to press our politicians to get together on reforming our immigration policies so that it will allow for a fair and legal way for these people come into the country and fill the positions our current generation doesn’t seem to be interested in.
    A lot of the new generation doesn’t want to invest the time it takes to move up the ladder in construction. They want to start off at the top and work their way up from there. They don’t realize the cost the company fronts to train them. If you’re a person with a strong work ethic and staying power, then we don’t mind making the initial investment for on the job training. That way you learn the way our company wants the work done in regards to quality and safety. Our company has been in business for over 30 years and I would put any of our trained people up against any union trained worker. We all have to meet the same codes and our work is all inspected by the same building inspectors. We offer all the paid benefits that a union company offers. Yes, there are some cut-throat companies out there on both sides but in this labor market they won’t last, especially if we have comprehensive immigration reform. The cheap labor these companies take advantage of will disappear. I have seen just as much shoddy work by union contractors as by non-union contractors. Quality and safety come from a culture the company establishes and not by whether you’re union or non-union.

  6. The construction industry is currently garbage for labor.Low wages with benefits non existent.I have been a carpenter since the late 70’s. Never has it taken so long for wages to recover from a recession.Those involved in the management side have taken this opportunity to greatly exploit labor. There is a good reason many highly skilled tradesman have left the industry.

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