Ten years after the Great Recession of 2008, construction contractors and unions are still feeling labor pains. As the economy has slowly recovered, the increase in demand for construction has not been met with an equal increase in the skilled laborers needed to complete it.
The crisis is two-fold, a combination of past and present forces that are making it almost impossible for construction companies to keep up. We’ve broken down these two major shifts and what we can do about it.
As residential and commercial construction projects screeched to a halt in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008 many skilled laborers were out of work. In an effort to keep a roof over their own heads, more than 1.5 million workers left the residential construction industry in search of a new career and in some cases, early retirement.
As America got itself back on its feet, many abandoned commercial and infrastructure projects were back on the schedule. As the citizen’s wallet became a little more padded and a new generation of homeowner entered the market, a demand for residential construction also saw an increase. In 2014, there was an 11 percent increase in nationwide construction spending from the previous year.
With the demand for skilled labor showing aggressive year-over-year growth, one may assume that the construction industry is an attractive option for millennials and Gen Zers entering the workforce. As Americans, however, we have a serious stigma to overcome.
The American school system and Hollywood continue to do damage to the reputation of skilled workers and it’s a real problem for the economy.
American students are taught from a young age that good grades equal a good college which equals a good job. It’s been a pervasive and poisonous method of equating high tests scores in English, Math, and Science with a comfortable financial future. By the time many students graduate high school, the thought of not going to college seems absurd.
For many students, vocational training is never spoken about, much less offered for credit—the woodshop of yesteryear is nonexistent. With the help of Hollywood, vo-tech programs are viewed as an alternative for “dumb” kids who are unable to succeed at “regular” school. American movies and television have long portrayed the “dumb plumber” stereotype, subliminally suggesting that tradespeople are less astute than their white-collar counterparts.
The truth is, in the current economy many degree-holding millennials are faced with burdensome student loan debt without a lucrative opportunity to pay it off. Contrarily, there is an increasing number of construction companies offering full or partial reimbursement of education costs related to their trade. And they’ll generally make $40,000-$60,000 right out of the gate without the stress of a corporate climb.
Baby boomers, who comprise more than 40 percent of the current construction workforce, will continue to retire at rapid rates, inducing an understandable panic. Mass exodus and minimum arrival don’t mix, so what can do about it?
The sector-saving solution is probably part PR and part meticulous money management. Cost-saving measures that can be taken without sacrificing quality should be made as a preservation measure. But to tackle the labor shortage head-on, more grassroots movement will be necessary.
Recently, lobbyists and infrastructure bills have been passed to try to remedy the situation. At the moment, they’re not really cutting it. Small, local campaigns at middle and high schools could do more than expected by peaking interest and education in the trades.
Rather than waiting on someone else to clean up the mess, construction industry professionals need to be the mouthpiece of a movement towards a more sound future…