Times have changed. It once wasn’t unusual for a construction career to start and end with family. “You learned the skills, gained responsibility along the way and often ended up years later with ownership of the business,” said Kim Waseca-Love, education and apprenticeship director for the Spokane (WA) Home Builders Association.
But that scenario is becoming less and less common. And with the ongoing labor shortage, the need for solutions is taking on a greater importance. Waseca-Love says there will soon be a deficit of 200,000 to 250,000 construction workers annually nationwide. Part of that drop-off will come as the result of older workers retiring, making the need to transfer their knowledge and skills to those taking their place an urgent one.
The challenge, of course, is finding those new workers.
The role of apprenticeships
Passing along knowledge from an experienced worker to one who wants to learn is an age-old practice, and it remains one of the most effective ways to train someone in a skill.
Since 1980, the Spokane HBA has offered a four-year apprenticeship program, which is approved and monitored by the state’s Department of Labor and Industries. Through the program, apprentices undergo 8,000 hours of on-the-job training in residential carpentry, plus another 144 hours of related classroom instruction, and are paid wages by their employers. When finished, each student is issued a certificate of completion by the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council.
The Northeast Florida Builders Association has been running its training program for almost 45 years, offering a four-year course of study in four trades: carpentry, electric, HVAC and plumbing. Association members provide 2,000 hours of on-the-job training each year and the apprentice is paid hourly with a 5% wage bump every six months during the program. So far, the program has graduated 1,700 students.
According to Christina Thomas, training director for the Northeast Florida program, the benefits go both ways. “The employer has the opportunity to grow their own talent, and the students who go through the program often want to give back,” she said, adding that eight in 10 instructors are also program graduates.
On the commercial side, the Colorado Contractors Association (CCA) started its apprenticeship program in the late 1970s with a similar mission. Today, its training includes carpentry, cement masonry, heavy equipment operation, ironwork and truck driving. The program is approved by the Department of Labor’s apprenticeships office, said Terry Kish, CCA director of safety and workforce development.
The CCA’s is also a multi-year program, with the carpentry apprenticeship providing 8,000 hours of training over the course of four years. Those interested in the cement mason, heavy equipment operator or ironworker programs must undertake 6,000 hours of instruction over three years, and future truck drivers must take a one-year program comprising 2,000 hours of instruction.
The apprentice is an employee of the contractor, who pays their wages. In the CCA’s program, the student must first be working for one of its member contractors in order to get accepted.
Challenges in recruiting remain
The training programs are there, but inspiring students to go into construction is still one of the biggest battles the industry faces today. A four-year college degree isn’t right for everyone, so getting the word out that the skilled trades can offer a viable alternative career path is the first step. “These skills can be learned without taking on the debt that often comes with a traditional degree,” Waseca-Love said.
The housing market crash dealt a blow to perceptions of construction as a lucrative job. Thomas still sees some skepticism about a career in the industry. That’s in part because the path is not being promoted in high schools on par with other options like joining the military or going to college. “Unless the family is in construction, kids may not understand the opportunities,” Thomas says.
Those opportunities can include a financial boost. “My apprentices start on day one often making more money than someone who graduated from a traditional college,” Kish says. “And after three to four years they can be making $30 to $40 an hour. And have no debt.”
Expanding recruiting efforts is vital to reaching prospective students. “We use social media, print and online advertising, attend many career fairs each month and reach out to trades and tell them to send us those applicants they can’t hire due to lack of skills,” says Michael Smith, director of the Colorado Homebuilding Academy (CHA). The CHA, too, offers hands-on training to un- or under-employed workers, military veterans and high school students readying for graduation, among others. The academy also runs a website — DiscoverBuildingCareers.org — to highlight careers in construction.
Finding future workers starts today
In June, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to increase apprenticeship funding to $200 million and give the private sector more say in how they would set up their programs. But Smith says the Department of Labor has yet to release guidance on how the expedited process will work, or if it will apply to the construction industry.
Even if efforts to recruit the next generation are successful, Kish said construction payrolls will drop 20% in the next four to five years as workers age out of the industry. A lot of knowledge will leave with them. “They know what the problems can be and how to solve them. They also have the relationships with the owners and customers,” he said. “Companies need to have a transition plan to instill the knowledge from those leaving to those coming in.”
It’s a game of catch-up, and the industry has fallen behind. Kish said the economic hit that construction companies took as a result of the recession also didn’t help.
“It was eight years where companies were just trying to make payroll. They weren’t hiring. So now there are age gaps, especially in the trades,” he said. “But we all need to remember how important construction is. Without it, nothing else happens.”