A strong future depends on a growing work force.
Difficult times have a way of revealing hard truths, of forcing individuals to look reality in the eye. The economic downturn of recent years has forced the construction industry to face some hard truths as well. To turn these difficulties into opportunities, experts say the industry is going to have to reconsider some old thinking—and teach the public to do the same.
The Old Days
Until World War II, so-called blue collar jobs were a respectable, realistic career path that could provide a good living for the average American family. People who could work with their hands, who could build and repair things, were seen as craftsmen, and their skills were valued.
After the war the emphasis on technology and “doing better” than our parents’ generation, coupled with government programs like the GI Bill, caused an attitude shift across the country. A college degree became an expected accomplishment, no matter what your skills or career goals.
The Modern Era
Today a “failure” to possess a college degree is seen as a lack of ambition or intelligence. And blue collar jobs are perceived as less desirable and insufficient to sustain a good standard of living.
Rather than encouraging young people to develop natural talents and individual interests, society tests and divides them by scores instead of skills. And those who don’t fit the standard are still encouraged to go into debt for a college degree whether they want one or not.
As Mike Rowe, America’s unofficial spokesperson for the working man, wrote, “. . . right now we seem confused about the proper definition of a good job and a good education. This has to change. We need to nurture mechanical talent in all those who possess it and encourage all forms of learning.”
The Current Outlook
Rowe seems to have hit the nail on the head as far as the construction trades are concerned, and the local market confirms it.
“Things are starting to improve, but our members are still having trouble finding qualified people,” says Jay Iverson of the Home Builders Association (HBA) of Iowa.
Iverson says the industry added nearly 12,000 jobs nationally in September. But local builders reported continued delays throughout the peak building months as subcontractors struggled to find enough skilled help to meet the demand.
And the key word, to most professionals, is “skilled.” Though there may be plenty of warm bodies out there, as one builder put it, few of them have the skills required to do the job well.
To change that, local professionals say the industry needs to take a two-pronged approach.
1. Educate young people
“We need to start reaching kids at the high school, even the middle school, level,” says Gary Scrutchfield of Lumbermans Drywall and Roofing Supply, who helped lead an after-school construction trades program at Hoover High School last year.
Most of the area high schools offer individual woodworking classes, but few very provide in-depth construction trades training. And young people who are interested in job shadowing or on-the-job apprentice programs are restricted by age.
“Our current law states that you have to be at least 18 to run a nail gun or a Skilsaw,” says Colin King of K & V Homes. “So it really limits their options.”
High school students can do the grunt work, King says, but they’re usually a step or two removed from the skilled portion of the job, so they’re not learning as much. Therefore fewer of them are interested.
Providing hands-on opportunities is key to igniting the passion for craftsmanship that lifelong professionals know. “People who excel at the trades are hands-on learners, and there aren’t enough opportunities for them in education right now,” Scrutchfield says.
Last year’s after-school program at Hoover High School, organized through the Boy Scouts of America, offered students a weekly opportunity to learn—and do—a variety of construction skills, from framing and drywall to electrical work and more.
Teacher Jeff Jansen says the six-month program brought in professionals each week to demonstrate their trade and show the students how to perform the work.
“We regularly had 20 kids,” he says. “But the total who participated was much higher since some kids just came for the trades they were most interested in.”
Jansen hopes to offer the program again this year but currently has no one to serve as liaison in the position Scrutchfield held last year.
“We do other field trips throughout the year so the kids get a chance to learn about different trades and trade schools,” Jansen says. “But this was a great opportunity for them to get in there and do it. I really hope we can get the industry participation so we can offer it again.”
2. Educate the public
Scrutchfield and King both note that part of the problem with our shrinking work force is the parents and the guidance counselors, who often reflect the attitudes of the rest of society.
“We have to teach the parents and the counselors to see the trades as viable paths for these kids and apprentices,” Scrutchfield explains.
Not only do we need to educate the public on the skills and craftsmanship required in the construction trades, but we need to show that these jobs are a viable career path economically as well. The average annual income for someone in the construction trades is nearly identical to the national average for all fields.
Hope for the Future
According to King, “We have an aging work force in the trades, so we’re relying on the next generation to keep the industry strong. If we don’t start developing and educating new workers, the labor shortage is going to be an ongoing problem for decades to come.”
Organizations like the HBA of Iowa and Mike Rowe’s mikeroweWORKS foundation are striving to do just that by offering scholarships for young people interested in pursuing training in the trades, whether through technical institutes or post-secondary programs like those available at DMACC, ISU, and UNI.
But it’s the people in the field now who will make the greatest difference for the future. Participating in after-school programs like the one at Hoover, working with the HBA and union administrators to develop educational programs, offering job shadowing and apprenticeship positions to interested young people—all of these serve to reach the next generation of craftsmen eager to get a hands-on education.
Harvey S. Firestone, who founded Firestone Tire and Rubber, said it best: “It is only as we develop others that we permanently succeed.”
The construction industry depends on it.
The Local Perspective
Though the job outlook in the construction trades is growing nationally, conversations with several local builders indicate that the labor situation continues to be an issue here in central Iowa.
“Things seemed even tighter this summer than last year,” says Tim Stolp of Timber Ridge Homes. “Most of our subs were short-staffed, so we saw delays throughout the season.”
Colin King agrees. “It’s still a struggle to find skilled labor, especially people who are willing to work the longer hours during peak season.”
Although Kirk Mickelson of KRM Development says his company saw fewer delays than previous years, he feels that may have been due to the weather as much as anything.
He says, “Because the weather delayed some projects and even postponed some, it seemed like people were better prepared to handle the work load.”
Mickelson expects next year may put more stress on the market if we see a more typical spring. “I think more skilled folks will come back,” Stolp says. “A lot of folks who left during the downturn are waiting it out, it seems. They don’t want to leave a regular, good-paying job until they know the market’s really coming back.”
Each of these men worked his way up from high school framing jobs or union training programs, and they all recognize that returning to that approach and developing an industry-wide education model is necessary to avoid a long-term labor shortage.