The societal narrative that great careers require a four-year degree is doing a disservice to the construction and manufacturing industries as well as to young people across the country, argued panelists at the recent Boys and Girls Clubs of America’s Great Think: Workforce Readiness event in Washington, D.C.
In sectors where a skilled labor shortage cuts deep, employers need to do more to reach out to these young people early on to “change the perception that a college pathway is the only route to success,” said Fluor Corp. Chairman and CEO David Seaton, board chair of BGCA.
“Kids can’t be what they can’t see,” noted Carolyn Lee, executive director of the Manufacturing Institute, and typically don't answer “welder” or “technician” when asked what they want to do when they grow up. Industry, therefore, needs to partner with schools to expose them to opportunities they otherwise might not know exist, she said.
Level the playing field
Parents and educators are particularly formative of young peoples’ perceptions of these careers, panelists noted, and businesses should call on them to assign the same value to career and technical vocations. Guidance counselors can “level the playing field” by talking about these careers with the “same level of passion as the more conventional four-year college track, suggested Michael Bellaman, president and CEO of the Associated Builders and Contractors, because “career opportunities are phenomenal in both directions.”
“The dreams that you can achieve in our industry, regardless of where you come from or what education background you have, are unlimited. And it all comes down to desire — if you have the desire to achieve the dream, we’ve got the framework to make that happen.”
President, CEO, ABC
Once young people get their feet in the door, they’re easily won over by the opportunities present in the industry, said Bellaman. One approach to get them there is to underscore the “earn while you learn” framework, which has always been at the root of apprenticeships but which often gets swept under the rug, he said.
Bellaman participated in President Donald Trump’s Task Force on Apprenticeship Expansion during 2017 and 2018. The resulting report emphasized the financial advantage that apprentices have over peers set back by student loans, and also called for a “branding and imaging program” to shake some of the common misperceptions around apprenticeships, he explained.
Lifelong learning — without the loans
Many construction professionals can point to one success story after the next of individuals who opted out of higher education, finding success and entrepreneurial opportunities in the industry, he said, and employers are more than willing to help young people down this path. ABC members collectively invested $1.6 billion in their employees’ education in 2018, up from $1.1 billion five years prior, according to a report released by the association on the day of the event. These funds extend to craft education, safety training, leadership formation and more.
That emphasis is something that young people, especially Generation Z, like to see in potential employers, said Lee. “They want to solve challenges and do something that is bigger than themselves,” she said, and getting in front of them to share the ways that they can continue to learn and grow in the role could win them over.
“The beautiful thing is their dreams often match up with the employer’s needs, Bellaman said. "That’s the sweet spot."