Stop us if you’ve heard this story before. Construction firms nationwide are feeling the pinch of the nation’s inability to prepare workers for blue-collar careers. Demand is high, but supply is low.
The latest data paints a sobering picture. A recent survey from the Associated General Contractors of America found that 88% of firms with job openings are struggling to fill at least some of those positions. One of the main reasons labor shortages are so severe in the construction industry is that most job candidates are not qualified to work in the industry. More than two-thirds of firms said their applicants do not have the skills needed to work in construction.
One of the biggest areas lacking is digital literacy, ranging from a lack of understanding of modern social media to in some cases not knowing how to turn on a computer, says Dan Kuba, deputy secretary for workforce development at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. As the population ages, the digital divide grows, especially in more rural areas without reliable broadband service. Other major barriers are access to childcare and public transportation.
However, Kuba says that despite the challenges of hiring qualified talent, state contractors have a plethora of resources at their disposal that they may not even know are available. The main one, he says, is PA CareerLink – a public labor exchange system enabled by federal dollars to help support recruiting services free of charge. Kuba touts the service as every bit as good, if not better, than some of the major online job boards, such as ZipRecruiter, Indeed, and Monster.
Another important avenue for talent is apprenticeships. From a recruiting perspective, Kuba notes that the state has invested a great deal of resources to make apprenticeship programs as attractive and lucrative as possible. The most recent state budget allocates $23.5 million for workforce training and vocational programs to prepare more students for careers in the building, construction, and infrastructure industries. The budget also provides $6 million for pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programming.
“People are walking out of those programs making $55,000 to $120,000 a year,” Kuba says. “They have zero debt. And in most cases, they’re walking away with some form of associate degree or some kind of certification and … they’re learning an overall service that’s not getting exported, and it’s not getting sent overseas.”
But those apprenticeships aren’t just lucrative. In some cases, the workers from apprenticeship programs are making a difference to combat perhaps the most pressing issue of our time – climate change.
“There’s talk of hydrogen and carbon capture, and that’s the work that we do,” says Mike Stanton, business manager/apprenticeship coordinator at Boilermakers Local 154. However, Stanton notes that premature closure of power plants could jeopardize national security and the nation’s power grid, so apprenticeship workers have a unique opportunity to be part of an “all of the above” approach to solving climate change. That includes a mix of energy resources, including combining fossil fuels with carbon capture, nuclear energy, renewable energy, and clean fuels.
Another exciting aspect of construction apprenticeships is the chance to use skills and knowledge you never expected you would use. For example, participants in the Pittsburgh-based Carpenters Training Center get a chance to learn and apply geometry and trigonometry, says instructor Jay Johnson.
“Carpentry work is all based on plumb, level, and square,” Johnson explains. “We teach the Pythagorean Theorem. We teach degrees, minutes, and seconds when it comes to layout. So, the math portion of our work is probably the biggest surprise to most people.”
The combination of attractive apprenticeship programs and a robust PA CareerLink website begs an important question – if we’ve built these great resources, why aren’t more qualified candidates coming?
According to Jim Fitzroy from Cement Masons Local Union 526, there’s often a belief that you need a personal connection to start a career in a union trade.
“That’s a myth,” Fitzroy says. “All we need is an individual that wants to work and work hard.”
An equally big issue, Kuba says, is that construction is dealing with an image problem akin to the one the manufacturing industry has fought. Like manufacturing, there is a perception of construction as dirty, unwelcoming, and chock full of unpleasant grunt work. However, once manufacturers started highlighting robotics, the industry began to change. Construction has a similar opportunity with virtual reality and gamified design.
“If you look at today’s kids, some of the games that parents get mad about, like Minecraft, [involve] building things,” Kuba says. “And kids are inquisitive. So now we’re starting to see in the elementary schools, in the middle schools, using some of this technology, getting people to look at some of these gaming systems and how they’re using it. How much different is Minecraft from CAD, and designing and developing and creating?”
From a skill development standpoint, this approach can also benefit employers in need of specific trades, such as welding.
“If you want to go learn how to weld, it’s very costly to sit there and practice welding,” Kuba says. “But if you get in one of those virtual systems, they have trailers that go around, and you can practice doing it in a virtual reality world. You could go in and move around heavy equipment in a virtual reality world, you could drive a truck and CDL. In some of these systems that exist, they tap into the current mindset of our youth. And we have to take advantage of that.”
If you’re not sure how to get started, NCCER’s Construction Career Pathways Initiative has a checklist of what you need. The Pathways website also includes best practices profiles from other states and a connection map to help you link up with technical educators.