Skilled Labor Shortage Continues to Plague US Construction Industry

Last month, we wrote about a Northern Michigan organization called Build Your Life and their efforts to educate high school students about the benefits of a career in the trades. In this follow up blog, we’re diving deeper and exploring why organizations like Build Your Life need to exist in the first place.

The Problems

Labor Shortages

According to a recent Bloomberg report, despite millions of people out of work because of the pandemic, there are still hundreds of thousands of unfilled jobs in the construction industry.  

Even when unemployment reached nearly 15% in 2020, empty construction jobs hovered between 223,000 and 332,000 – which is about the same as back when unemployment was only 4.1% in early 2019. What gives?

“You’ve got a lot of folks who are recently unemployed, but still don’t think of construction careers as an opportunity,” said Brian Turmail, vice president of strategic initiatives and public affairs at Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). “There’s an impression that construction careers are like a job of last resort, and not a rewarding kind of middle-class career,” he said.

A National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) survey from February 2020 found that 85% of builders “expect to face serious challenges regarding the cost and availability of labor,” up from 13% in 2011. Obviously this is an issue that predates the pandemic, but now it’s gotten even worse.

Lack of a Skilled Workforce

If you are an unemployed American willing to try joining the construction trade, be warned: untrained, entry level construction workers are not what many firms are looking for.

Daniel Lane, vice president and installation manager at Flint, Michigan-based American Metal Roofs, said it took more than six months to fill 10 positions last year for seven residential roofing crews throughout Michigan.

“A third of our applicants couldn’t read the tape measure,” he said. Pre-pandemic, the industry was already partnering with correctional facilities to find day workers to keep projects moving. Now, wage-wars have erupted, inflating starting rates, Lane said. 

Hiring issues have become a headache for some developers. “I’m looking to reduce all of my construction costs, and I see the prices of everything are going down, but the labor is not,” said Eran Polack, chief executive of HAP Investments, which had seven projects underway in New York City.

Training Availability Troubles

According to Bloomberg, another reason the construction industry is facing a labor shortage problem is the “expense and unavailability” of required certification training.

“For 20 years, we haven’t trained and spent money on educating, and at the same time a lot of the industry is retiring. So the skills gap is going to get worse before it gets better,” says Ed Brady, president and CEO of the Home Builders Institute, a non-profit training program associated with the NAHB.

Nathan Barry, dean of career and technical education at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska, said instructor salaries need a boost, too. His 1,000-student education center offers courses ranging from civil engineering and architecture to electrical welding and construction management. Some trade-school faculty can easily make six figures working in construction rather than teaching, Barry explained.

Negative Perceptions

Even before the pandemic, interest in pursuing trade careers has declined over the years. A 2019 survey from the AGC found that “eighty percent of construction firms report they are having a hard time filling hourly craft positions that represent the bulk of the construction workforce.”

According to an NPR report, most high school students assume that, after graduation, they need to get a college degree. 

“There’s that perception of the bachelor’s degree being the American dream, the best bang for your buck,” said Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, an association of state officials who work in career and technical education. “The challenge is that in many cases it’s become the fallback. People are going to college without a plan, without a career in mind, because the mindset in high school is just, ‘Go to college.’ “

Despite the many benefits of a trade career, the number of students who seem interested in joining a trade has dropped from 1 in 4 in 1990, to 1 in 5 in 2018 according to the U.S. Department of Education. But the misconceptions don’t end with the students.

“We’ve done a terrible job of branding to parents,” Barry said. “Imagine a 15-year-old telling mom and dad, ‘Well, I think I want to be a plumber.’ Mom and dad are going to say, ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but let’s have higher aspirations.’”

Kairie Pierce, apprenticeship and college director for the Washington State Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, says a career in the trades “sort of has this connotation of being a dirty job. ‘It’s hard work — I want something better for my son or daughter.’ “

Potential Solutions

In recent years, many states have invested millions of dollars into various methods to help bring more people into skilled trades positions. A few recent efforts include Iowa community colleges and businesses collaborating to increase the number of “work-related learning opportunities,” and Tennessee making its technical colleges free. Michigan has a “Sixty by Thirty” alliance, which strives to “increase the number of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree from 45% today to 60% by 2030.”

Darren Redford, 20, looks to his instructor after completing a connector mockup drill at the Iron Workers Local Union #86 Administrative Offices in Tukwila, Wash.
Sy Bean/The Hechinger Report

Stepping outside of government solutions, we at Builders License Training Institute are proud to offer a variety of scholarships to help people pass their certification exams and become licensed builders in their states. One of our scholarships is specifically for high school/college students, and covers the cost of exam prep/prelicense courses.

Increasing the US skilled labor force by removing negative stigmas and providing ample educational opportunities will take time and effort by everyone – from the federal government down to local organizations like Build Your Life. But we, along with many others, are confident that more young people will start giving the US the skilled labor force it needs.
If you know any high school students who might not know about the benefits of a career in the skilled trades, try talking to them about your own experiences. And if they become interested and want to pursue that path, you can send them information about our available scholarships here.