One of my favorite TV shows of all time was Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel. Mike Rowe, the main funny guy character, brought the nitty gritty details of the blue collar life into homes across the world. The premise of the show was to have a fearless guy apprentice himself to people who perform dangerous or disgusting jobs, ranging from rattlesnake catcher and zoo cleaner to road-kill collector. His Dirty Jobs show aired years ago, so when I saw him on my Facebook feed recently I was intrigued. Mike’s message? “That we will have 2 million unfilled trade jobs by 2025!” Also, “It’s time to start respecting blue collar jobs and not look down on them.” I couldn’t agree more. As a co-owner of a construction company I am worried. Before the recession we used to get job applicants knocking on our door on a pretty frequent interval. Now we’re lucky to get 1 or 2 a year. Our recent job posting for a lead carpenter only provided a small handful of applicants. There are two reasons for this: first, times are good and people are employed. The other reason is that fewer people are pursuing the trades.
What's happening to our trades?
Our trades are heading toward a crisis. Many of the 20-30 year olds that quit the trades during the recession either found work in another field or they went back to school to get retrained. For example: my insurance agent used to build custom homes, while one of our lead carpenters went back to school to become a nurse.
Our schools foster the belief that the only logical step after high school is college and that thinking has put our country in a bind. Schools do a great job of preparing students for college life, but what about the students that don’t want a college degree?
Luckily some schools are starting to pay attention. Yelm schools are now integrating a Career and Technical Education program into their curriculum. New Market Skills Center in Tumwater offers a construction trades course along with other hands-on career options. Adam Shell, the construction trades teacher at New Market says, “There is $200M in sold contracts in the greater Seattle area waiting to be completed by union carpenters. With the labor shortage these projects may take a long time to see completion.” This slow awakening in our schools to provide training for our future tradespeople will eventually help our labor shortage, but I’m worried that it’s not happening fast enough.
How can we solve this dilemma?
Maybe it’s time to rethink our entire school system. In Italy they divide students by career paths in their junior year of high school. Students are either on the college path or the trades path. Students interested in the trades are paired up with schools that provide what they are interested in studying. We hosted an Italian student who was on the college path to become an electrical engineer. His younger brother studied at a culinary school his junior and senior years. With 25% of US high school freshmen failing to graduate from high school on time I thought, “What a genius idea Italy has for its youth…If only we could do that here.” Our high schools need to bring back enthusiasm and interest in the trades if we are going to have any electricians, plumbers, welders, etc., in our country’s future.
The future of construction?
We’ve seen the start of it. It’s called “stealing employees” from other companies. Just last year we were desperate for a lead carpenter and offered a job to one of our competitor’s lead carpenters. We were able to “steal” him away because we provided a generous hiring bonus and a handsome benefits package. With the labor force aging rapidly there will be fewer and fewer talented people to “steal” from our competitors.
One thought I’ve had is to pair younger, unskilled laborers, with our seasoned craftsmen. They could work in teams, side-by-side, and learn the skills necessary to become lead carpenters. We could keep our aging, skilled carpenters in the field longer if their role became mentors to our young apprentices. In theory this is a magnificent idea. In reality, this added field labor cost would have to be passed on to the consumer. With current material costs always on the rise, the idea of adding additional labor costs to every project just doesn’t seem feasible.
Innovation and change.
As part of my concern for our trades’ future I’ve planted a seed in my community. I’ve invited schools and the building community to start a discussion on how we can grow the next generation of skilled labor. My hope is that we can come up with a program to pair budding students with our community of trade professionals. By providing students job experience through informational interviews, job shadowing and mentoring we can help guide them to a career at which they will flourish. Wish me luck!
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