Constructing a skilled worker pipeline

Blank, Marcus, and Home Depot foundations pledge $5.7 million to construction education

Three out of four construction companies will have job openings this year. Water and sewer construction projects, bridge and highway, schools and hospitals are among the projects that will create the highest demand for workers, according to the 2020 Safe Construction Hiring and Business Outlook Survey.

But an overwhelming majority of the construction companies surveyed are having a difficult time finding qualified employees to fill those roles. The low unemployment rate is one factor. The other is a generational decline in pursuing careers in the industry, says Kenneth Simonson, chief economist of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC).

“For decades, parents and guidance counselors have been steering high school students to college, even though many would do better financially going into careers like construction,” says Simonson.

The number of highly-skilled tradespeople on the decline

The decline in enrollment in career and technical education programs has meant it is harder to find students with preparation for construction careers. And there are now far fewer foreign-born workers with construction experience or interest than before the 2007 to 2009 recession, he tells WorkingNation.Nationally, 704,000 jobs will need to be filled by 2028. The demand is higher in some states. For example, the Georgia Department of Labor estimates 271,529 construction industry jobs will be available by 2022.

A big part of that growth can be attributed to technology, says Greg Sizemore, vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce education for the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

“We have an industry that, due to attrition by nature of the aging population, there seems to be a back door bigger than the front door. More people are retiring out of it than coming in,” he adds.

Education: A career building block

There’s another reason for the worker shortage in the construction industry. “I’ve been concerned for a number of years that students have been told that if they don’t get a college education they can’t succeed. It’s not true. And it hasn’t been true since I was a kid,” says Bernie Marcus, The Home Depot co-founder and chairman of The Marcus Foundation.

“Many people have been successful after learning a trade. It helps make the world ’work.’ Our country has grown and prospered because of electricians, plumbers, and all kinds of construction workers in every generation. Having a skill in a trade today can lead to a great job, no college debt, and the ability to provide for a family,” argues Marcus.

That’s why Marcus’ personal family foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, and The Home Depot Foundation have gifted a $5.7 million grant to the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA). Marcus and Blank are co-founders of The Home Depot. The grant from the three organizations will support a three-year investment to address the education and training of professionals who can eventually join the construction workforce.

Investing in the future

“We are grateful to these industry leaders for addressing the very real problem of the workforce skills gap facing the construction industry,” said Scott Shelar, chief executive officer and president of CEFGA. “This watershed funding effort will make a significant impact on students across the state, while simultaneously helping industry partners see tangible results as more skilled professionals join the workforce.”

The investment will enable CEFGA to create programs that start in K-12 that will:

  • Expand the number of elementary and middle school construction programs from nine to at least 20 across the state.
  • Expand the number of industry-certified high school construction programs in Georgia from 42 to more than 80.
  • Expose more than 21,000 students to careers in construction.
  • Provide training and industry credentials to more than 17,500 students.
  • Place at least 3,500 students into work-based learning and full-time employment opportunities in the construction industry.

“CEFGA’s new education model is changing the game for how students in Georgia learn about and pursue a career in the trades,” said Chairman, CEO and President of The Home Depot Craig Menear. “As the skilled labor gap continues to widen, we’re proud to support CEFGA and partner with The Marcus and Blank foundations to train future generations of tradesmen and women.”

College vs. trade career

ABC’s Sizemore is thrilled to see the three foundations provide the grant to the CEFGA, calling it evidence of addressing the industry’s needs proactively. He also lauded Maryland’s addition of trade schools to 529 education savings programs, and Alabama’s collaboration between the industry and the state department of education to incorporate National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) curriculum in its programs.

In Michigan, he shares, high school students enjoy signing days with contractors, similar to the ceremonies that student-athletes a part of when they publicly commit to play for a college or university. With these signings, students commit to an “earn and learn” arrangement with a contractor.

A paradigm shift needs to happen, he says, where a construction career is not seen as an alternative to college, but rather as an equal choice, with dedicated funding for students and transitioning military and veterans to leverage for education and training.

“I am not anti-college. We walk a delicate balance in our industry. ABC has agreements with major universities across America through our student chapter network. These higher education programs are turning out the finest schedulers, estimators and safety professionals today. We can have all of the craftspeople we can. But if we don’t have great schedulers, cost technicians, and safety professionals, we can’t do the work still. There’s a balance between higher education and career tech,” he says.

Embracing evolving technology

Sizemore also says the industry needs to get over the fear that technology will replace the construction worker of today. It is, in his words, “absolutely untrue.”

“We have to aggressively embrace technology in our industry and look for ways to integrate that into project delivery process, workforce and planning of projects, and give individuals of projects a chance to upskill and embrace it,” he says.

Simonson of the AGC agrees. “In addition to openings in most traditional crafts, contractors are looking for workers who can operate and capture data from drones; handle collaborative software to work closely with owners, subcontractors, and suppliers; and engage in virtual design and construction,” he says.

Other technology-related opportunities within construction include robotics, telematics, automation, and augmented reality.

“That robot still has to be programmed. A drone still has to be piloted. Cranes! When you sit in the cabs on cranes today in any given city, whether a tower crane or crawling around on the ground, these are the most sophisticated cockpits you’ve seen,” Sizemore says. “We’ve got to highlight that whether people are interested as a second career, entering citizens, that construction will always have someone using a tool. We have to redefine what those tools are in order to demonstrate that our industry is advancing and not falling behind.”

The economic stakes are big

In addition to the individual job openings, the workforce shortage also has broader economic effects. When the vast majority of contractors employ less than 100 employees, these small businesses will not be able to sustain their viability without qualified workers, Sizemore adds. This means an economic impact on cities, states and across the country.

Perhaps putting an even finer point on the topic, he says the labor shortage affects everyone who may just want to enjoy the conveniences of modern life, even if they’re not seeking new or second careers.

“You think about who the most important person is on a Saturday night when your water doesn’t run, or your lights don’t work. You’re not going to call your doctor or lawyer,” he says. “You call a plumber or electrician. These are highly-skilled, competent, qualified individuals” who work in construction.

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