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Where Have All the Tradesmen Gone?

tradesmen missing
Image Credit: 123rf.com

Running a business in the world of construction and restoration fields I am often left asking this question. Where have all the tradesmen gone? In years past it wasn’t a problem trying find an able-bodied man or woman interested in working a good paying job doing manual labor, but after the Great Recession of 2008 lots of skilled tradesmen left the job market and just never returned.

An it’s not like the work I’m offering is ditch digging. My company employs skilled and unskilled workers restoring historic windows and doors. We are blessed to work on some of the most unique and historically significant structures in the southern United States. Unique architecture that is often times just as much art as engineering. Yet the struggle to find people who are willing to swing a hammer and work outdoors is stunningly difficult.

The Labor Shortfall

According to the Associated Builders & Contractors the US needs to add an additional 650,000 construction workers in 2022 and an additional 590,000 workers in 2023 to meet the demands set before us. That’s in addition to the normal rate of hiring which is expected to continue.

That huge demand coupled with all the money allocated in recent congressional Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November and stimulus from COVID-19 relief is throwing even more pressure on the construction industry to hire. When you add billions of dollars in federal construction funding you need thousands of new workers to complete that work. It’s estimated that for every $1 billion in construction spending you need 3,900 workers.

That’s obstacle #1. Convincing an additional 650,000 people to join the construction industry in a society where manual labor is thought of as the last refuge of those not cut out for college. Why is this even a thing when the demand for the construction jobs is in greater demand and pays on average $2 more per hour ($33.80 per hour) than all other private industries ($31.63)?

Surprised to hear that construction pays that much more than all other private industries average? I was too! We’ve told high school students for decades that without a college degree they are basically dead in the water, without hope of ever being successful, but it turns out that none of that is true.

The average college graduate will leave school with $29,927 in debt. Today’s college students expect to make about $103,880 in their first post-graduation job, a survey suggests. But the reality is much lower – as the average starting salary is actually about half that at $55,260, statistics show! That is one generation that has their expectations way out of whack.

Compare that to the average high school gad who can enter the construction industry debt free and begin making $31,367 per year without the millstone of educational loans hung around their neck for the next couple decades. That may be much lower than their college grad peers, but consider that according to ZipRecruiter a skilled construction worker, which means someone 1-2 years into the job, will be making $45,098 and be debt free.

Yes, jobs in the trades start paying at a lower ate, but they quickly move up when you consider that a plumber can make ~$67,497, a master electrician ~$78,221 per year, and a project manager around ~$110,443.

It would seem that armed with these facts we could convince those additional workers to jump right into the construction industry, but anyone in the industry will tell you that’s not happening. Even if it did, and people quickly saw the light and began applying that wouldn’t solve the other big dilemma.

The Skills Gap

Obstacle #2 is an even bigger issue in my mind. Once we hire the half a million new workers we need to keep up with the demand we need to train them. Entry level construction workers require a different level of skills training than retail or food service. One week of on the job training to run a cash register or box up a package at an Amazon hub is nowhere near sufficient for a construction worker.

The average green horn on a construction site is really only qualified to haul trash and lumber at first. It takes months before they can build a wall or hang sheets of drywall with the kind of skill that actually makes the company money.

And the specialty trades are even worse. For my window restoration company it takes us at least 3 months to get an employee to the point where they can do even the simplest tasks alone and close to 9 months to a year before they even have a chance to be promoted to a journeyman. I know professional plaster and stucco companies who take a full year before the employees begin to make them even a dime of revenue due to the immense learning curve!

The problem is that no one comes with these skills in hand. Everyone graduates knowing how to type and navigate a computer, but folks today rarely know the business end of a hammer. They call screws nails and nails screws and have no clue how to calculate the square footage of anything despite having studied geometry in high school. Our schools simply aren’t preparing kids for this kind of work anymore. High school prepares you for one thing and one thing alone…college.

The Solution

So what do we do? How do we overcome both of these obstacles? I’m asking because I don’t think there has been a good answer presented yet. There are excellent programs and training schools that have sprung up to try to fill this gap over the years and many have done notable work. Some of my favorites are below.

  • Mike Rowe Works – This foundation created by the Dirty Jobs star is working to change the stigma of blue collar jobs as not being desirable. They offer scholarships to help retrain people in the trades and also have a jobs portal to help connect employers and workers.
  • Yestermorrow – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my alma mater for the trades. Yestermorrow offers certificates, degrees, and weekend workshops to train in all kind of subjects like carpentry, design/build, plastering, woodworking and so many more.
  • Schools to Skills – The grant program provides funding to assist secondary schools in creating or enhancing their The Grant Program provides funding to assist secondary schools in creating or enhancing their construction trades programs. In other words they provide the funding and support to bring shop class back to high schools and middle schools so kids at least have the option.

Unfortunately, all these programs are like the little Dutch boy sticking his finger in the dike. For every hole they plug there are three more that spring up. It feels like trying to empty the ocean with a bucket. It’s going to take a cultural shift and as long as we value latté jobs more than Gatorade jobs in the culture it will be an uphill battle.

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7 thoughts on “Where Have All the Tradesmen Gone?

  1. As others have noted. I too do most of my own work on our 1901 Queen Anne. It started years ago when I called contractors out for bids and realized they had never worked on a Victorian before and hand no idea how it differed from a typical tract home. It was simply easier for me to do my own research and then tackle the problem. Results have been mixed, but mostly positive. And Scott is right, working with your hands in incredibly rewarding.

  2. The problem with the construction industry is that many of these jobs are seasonal and most people want full time positions that will pay a decent starting wage with benefits such as health insurance and 401k. It’s not that people don’t want to work, they want to be able to sustain themselves and their families, be able to buy a house and drive a nice car. That is a fair expectation for people to have. Many seasonal employers use migrant labor through the H2A or H2B program, and these people are hard working, work well together and are willing to put up with some tough jobs without complaining. The catch is that these programs are mired in red tape but worth it if you really need reliable and knowledgeable employees.

    Secondly, a new hire wants to be treated with respect. If you’ve got them in the door they will want to start learning skills in the first few days that will have them feeling like they are working in the direction of competency alongside their coworkers. A new hire doesn’t like the feeling of being singled out as the green hand. If you are the type of employer that will assign all of the lowly jobs such as sweeping, hauling trash and lumber, they will not be there for long. Getting people started with some type of “feel good” skill by a patient, people friendly instructor is key.

    Lastly, the Forman needs to be a knowledgeable and attentive leader. Many people quit because of top down dysfunction leading to crews operating with no clear direction. Keeping people is a current challenge in every industry right now. You have to be the type of outfit that can offer people not just a job but a career that they will want to stick with for years to come. I work in the Green Industry and our industry deals with many of the same issues as yours does. Just my two cents.

  3. I completely agree with your assessment. I attended a technical high school in Southern California called Don Bosco Technical Institute. It offered academics (3 R’s) in the morning and technical training in the afternoon. Specialties included electronics (my major), automotive, building tech, photo-lithography, design, and metallurgy. One could head off to college or enter a trade instead. Regardless of the path, this approach prepared us well for the years ahead. I opted for Electrical Engineering at USC and essentially slept through year 1 of the program having been so well prepared in the subject matter. Our nation’s high schools should consider adoption of the Bosco Tech model.

  4. My house is a tiny 1925 home in northwest Washington State. Maybe 22 x 25′. BC(before covid) the bid for my new roof was $2500. Now, $9,500! Although I can’t do my roof, I do all the repairs I can do. Even though I’m a beginner and don’t have the strength men have, I do okay. I thank God for those who have gone before me and share their knowledge with the rest of us. It gets a little crazy some times. I throw a mean tantrum. I know how high a circular saw can bounce. I have one more window to restore. I ran out of time last year. I do the work myself because I choose to use materials that my house would have been built with. Have started a new project of replacing the molded plaster (came with the house) with sheetrock behind the counter and period correct tongue and groove vertical grained fir for the backsplash. So, I’m doing the dishes in the garden sink. The air leaks in the kitchhen wall that made my legs ache have been sealed with new sheetrock and insulated with wool batting. I don’t know how to plaster, yet. I started doing my own work when I was looking for a repair person, I found strong resistance to using real wood in the repairs. They charged high prices and showed little pride in their work. they don’t get it. So, I do it myself. And I like the results. It means somethings to me.

  5. I am in total agreement with you. And sadly, our local high schools are pulling the plug on our shop and industrial arts programs. Even my local high school, who built a large tech school to attract students interested in trades work, isn’t wiling to pay to fully staff it for all the programs it is designed to offer.
    We need to really promote the advantages of the skilled trades to our youth. Even on the personal level, having something you can do, you can make, and no one can take from you, is valuable. I suspect, the disillusionment of the last generation burdened with astronomical college debt, may be an eye opener.
    We all need buildings in which to work and live.

  6. I live in Santa Barbara and have an 1880 house. Labor costs here are huge including
    Cash for hire work so I started doing it myself four years ago at the age of 63. I repaired, plastered and painted lath and plaster walls and ceilings, removed a dozen or more layers of paint, resurfaced 1” thick tongue and groove Doug fir floors that had never been refinished. Recently after watching Scott’s video on building screens use pocket screws I built 14, still need to screen them but so far they look great.
    I’m partly retired and worked in finance in my career and find working with my hands and visually seeing the fruits of my labor incredibly rewarding.

    My website is launched but not yet constructed.

    Thanks Scott.

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