It’s Great That We Know About The Skilled Workforce Shortages, But Now What Do We Do?

Words: Rachel Burris, Communications Manager, NCCER 
Photos: NCCER 

It’s a well-known secret that the United States workforce development system is not a leader in the world market right now, to the detriment of what was once one of the greatest infrastructures. The impact of workforce shortages is far-reaching – the quality of our roads is rated 14th in the world and the latest cumulative grade of America’s infrastructure is a D plus.  

Skilled workforce shortages are not a surprise to anybody in the construction industry and have been a topic of discussion for many years. But what do we do about it? What are the steps we can take to make a difference?  

A recently released research project, “Restoring the Dignity of Work: Transforming the U.S. Workforce Development System into a World Leader” provides direction and actions in order to move the pendulum in the other direction. All seven policies recommended in the project are essential:   

1. Establish and strengthen career awareness and education opportunities in our nation.  
2. Revitalize our work-based learning programs.  
3. Measure performance and involvement in workforce development when awarding construction contracts.  
4. Redefine how we measure the quality of our nation’s secondary education system by career and college readiness.  
5. Increase the participation of underrepresented groups in career and technical education (CTE).  
6. Establish and expand collaboration between industry, education and government.  
7. Develop more balanced funding among postsecondary CTE versus higher education. 

“Restoring the Dignity of Work’s” research team, RT 335, has determined that four of the policies require a more long-term investment, while three can be enacted fairly quickly. Again, all seven are vital and must be supported by the industry. Maybe every policy will not apply to you, but become champions of the ones that do.  

Let’s take a look at the three more immediate policies that can be implemented.  

  1. Establish and strengthen career awareness and education opportunities in our nation. 

The push for academic degrees has been to our detriment, both in the workforce and as individuals. More Americans are getting degrees than are needed for the jobs that are available. The reality is that for every ten jobs created in the United States, only one will require a postgraduate degree. Two will require a college degree, but seven out of ten jobs will require a technical degree, an apprenticeship or industry-recognized certificate. Yet it’s estimated that from 2015 through 2024, nearly 2 million people will receive bachelor’s degrees although only less than a million jobs will require four-year degrees. That’s a 50 percent underemployment average for bachelor’s degrees and even higher average for master’s degrees at a staggering 90 percent underemployment.  

Steve Greene, vice president of NCCER and a member of RT 335, shares, “Simply stated, the United States typically requires that only 30 – 33% of our population have a college degree and that these positions should have specific requirements for the type of degree. Unfortunately, as a result of more young people entering college than needed for the economy and available jobs, the U.S. population is experiencing mounting debt due to student loans.” 

Greene brings up an excellent point, “The average student loan debt for last year was almost $40,000.  Forty-four million young men and women of the U.S. are borrowers of that money, which today reaches almost $1.5 trillion in debt, second only to mortgage debt.” 

While the facts above are staggering, please note that the conclusion of RT 335 and their research is not anti-college by any means, but rather supportive of individuals pursuing educational opportunities that are needed in today’s workforce. We absolutely need people to pursue four-year degrees – but only to fulfill the 30 percent of jobs that need them. It is the proposal of RT 335 that we, as an industry and nation, make students aware of all the available career paths. It may seem simple to say, but how do we go about increasing career and education awareness? 

It must start with awareness in elementary schools through middle school and into high school. We must educate our public school teachers, guidance counselors and administrators, as well as parents. We must share not only the career opportunities such as advancement, but also the lucrative salaries, the innovative technology used and the high skills learned.  

Greene points out, “We must change the terminology. How many of you want your children or your grandchildren to aspire to be middle skilled? We hear that all the time, but I’ll challenge you that every mason, welder, carpenter, ironworker, electrician, plumber, pipefitter or other craft professional working on your project exhibits high skills.” 

We must replace our portrayal of short-term jobs on a project to one of careers in an industry to be proud of. Let’s remove the inaccurate “blue collar” and “middle skilled” terms from our language and make sure that we are the leaders in using the terms “craft professional” and “highly skilled.” Let’s be an example for the nation to follow.  

In addition, incorporate these steps in your efforts to establish and strengthen career awareness and education opportunities in our nation: 

  1. Get involved in your local community. Sit on your school board, participate in career days and educate the school system on the career opportunities that students will have after graduating.  
  1. Promote the public image of the nation’s CTE. Recognize successful individuals. Become involved with Build Your Future and utilize both byf.org and discover.byf.org as resources.  
  1. Communicate with federal, state and local politicians, as well as other business and industry leaders, by clarifying facts about the future supply and demand needed in the labor market.  

 
2. Revitalize our work-based learning programs.  
 

Work-based learning has been heavily underutilized as a choice for academic study and underbalanced in funding, although recent government officials have focused more on increasing apprenticeships. U.S. registered apprenticeships are at a dismal $259 funding for training per participant compared to $12,000 by Switzerland, $6,328 by Austria and $4,560 by Germany. Although private construction apprenticeships are comparable to Germany at $4,692, public funding is sorely imbalanced as four-year degrees, not including any loans, is funded $9,740 annually.  

While the Department of Labor boasts a 56 percent increased growth from 2013 to 2018, the total number of registered apprentices is still only 585,000. Construction, as a well-known proponent of apprenticeships, leads every industry with 166,629 registered apprentices while the military comes in second with 98,435 apprentices in 2018. Among the major challenges facing revitalizing apprenticeships is restrictions regarding registered versus not registered programs and positioning work-based programs as viable postsecondary options.  

Because the Administration of Registered Apprenticeship system is fragmented — 25 states use the Office of Apprenticeship at the U.S. Department of Labor and the other 25 states and the District of Columbia use State Apprenticeship Agencies — there is no single repository of data for all registered apprenticeship programs. In addition, there are many programs that use the apprenticeship model but do not become registered. Nonregistered programs follow the apprenticeship model by meeting both the classroom hours and competency requirements set by the Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeship while choosing not to go through the registration process. Even though the programs are fundamentally the same, the registration process, with 23 specific program requirements in addition to the apprenticeship-specific equal employment opportunity regulations, may be the roadblock keeping construction companies from registering their programs.   

While the U.S. Department of Labor has recently announced a new Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP), the construction industry has been prevented from joining due to its already high participation in registered apprenticeship programs. Perhaps in the future, our industry will be able to earn additional advantages from the programs that we have been the leader in.   

Among the numerous benefits of work-based learning, particularly apprenticeships, youth are learning crafts and also being prepared for adulthood. Yet, these programs are not being utilized early enough by today’s youth. The average age of registered apprentices is 30 years old, leaving a 12-year gap between high school graduation and entry into an apprenticeship which illustrates that this form of work-based learning is not being considered a postsecondary option. By the time many of these apprentices enter a program, they have already incurred college debt.  

What can you do to help revitalize our work-based learning programs?  

  1. Better inform high school students as well as their parents, teachers and school administrators of the benefits and opportunities that a career in construction can provide. Actively recruit during career days, through presentations at schools and becoming a visible option in your community.  
  1. Be a voice in state and federal government to provide tax incentives for employers who invest in developing their workers, to streamline the administrative processes necessary to register apprenticeship programs and to allow construction to participate in IRAP.  

3. Measure performance and involvement in workforce development when awarding construction contracts. 

When owners began measuring safety performance as a pre-qualification criteria for bidding and awarding contracts, a significant improvement in contractor safety performance was reported. Recognition by owners of the importance of safety was a key factor in increasing industry-wide changes in safety performance. 

What does this change have to do with workforce development? A lot — projects that experience skilled workforce shortages have shown increased safety incidents. In fact, previous research by Construction Industry Institute (CII) known as RT 252 concluded that a high score on the Contractors Workforce Development Assessment (CWDA), a tool to measure the level of engagement by an organization in workforce development, also resulted in lower recordable incident rates. 

The competence and quality of a contractor’s workforce stem directly from the contractor’s commitment to workforce development. Eddie Clayton, contracting and workforce development strategies manager of Southern Company and member of RT 335, points out that “not having sufficient numbers skilled craft professionals on projects really increases the risk of those projects being successful.”  

Clayton states, “We need our contractors, who are the predominant employers of our skilled workforce, to be engaged in the process of ensuring that we have an adequate number of people coming into the crafts and actively involved in all facets of workforce development.”  

Southern Company is blazing the trail as an owner requiring their contractors to be actively involved in workforce development. Clayton shares, “We recently sent out a survey to find out what they are doing in key areas of workforce development and then will develop a more specific questionnaire with a scoring matrix. At the end of the day, we’ll only have the contractors who are most engaged in our bid list for our construction and maintenance projects.”  

To support measuring the performance and involvement in workforce development, ensure the applicable steps are followed:  

  1. Invest in workforce development. The return has been shown to be worth the investment. Make sure you’re training, upskilling and retaining your employees.  
  1. Measure the performance and involvement in workforce development of your contractors. Use prequalification criteria to set up your bid list.  

As Greene states, “We build the world, and we make it a better place to live. We must rebuild the image of our industry. It’s important.” 

You may have noticed that many of the recommended actions include becoming involved — that was not by accident. We, as an industry, have to be more vocal and involved in our communities and schools. We must share the numerous stories of individuals who have succeeded in construction, demonstrate the leaps the industry has made in safety and innovation and show that working in the crafts is more than a job, it’s a career of choice and endless possibilities.  

Without skilled craft professionals, owners, contractors and projects will not be successful. Working together, the industry can change the future of America’s infrastructure for the better. Let’s make the future a better one for our children and their children; let’s show them the pride and dignity in being the ones who build the world.    

To download the full research project, “Restoring the Dignity of Work” and add your organization to the growing list of endorsements, visit nccer.org/research.