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.
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.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.