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By: Kendall Jones on July 26th, 2017

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

Operating Insights

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.

About Kendall Jones

Kendall Jones is the Editor in Chief at ConstructConnect. He has been writing about the construction industry for years, covering a wide range of topics from safety and technology to industry news and operating insights.