A solution to the shortage of skilled labor? Diversify the construction industry
Other programs, such as Power UP in Birmingham, Alabama, seek to encourage, educate and place women in construction trades. Kathleen Culhane, president of Nontraditional Employment for Women, or NEW, which has been training women for jobs in construction and other trades since 1978, said the organization’s partners in unions are now reserving 15 percent of their positions for NEW graduates. (It was 10 percent about five years ago.)
In the early 1980s, women could show up to a construction site with tools in hand and could not find work, Culhane said. Despite the progress, she said, there is still work to be done, especially to give women of color access to these “vital and family careers”. According to NEW, women still occupy only 3% of “practical tool” jobs (as opposed to management and administrative jobs) in the construction industry.
To reduce these disparities, other programs target a younger audience, while stereotypes about who can work in construction are less entrenched. The Construction Education Foundation of Georgia, founded in 1993, shares construction skills and training with approximately 20,000 students in 175 elementary and secondary schools across the state. In districts that fully embrace the curriculum, students find training in construction starting in grade two, including thematic lesson plans in math and science classes, and even high school apprenticeship programs to help. students get a job in the field.
“We are building bridges between industry and education, and all genders and ethnicities can try it,” said Zach Fields, vice president of the foundation.
Actively opening up the construction industry to a wider range of people would increase the pool of recruits, thus providing more opportunities to train them for positions in demand. But that would not be a quick fix. Better wages, labor standards and benefits would also help attract more workers to long-term careers in the skilled trades, especially when wages increase for jobs that require less training.
Andrew Garin, professor of economics at the University of Illinois, said aggregate economic data did not point to a shortage of workers in infrastructure construction as much as it did to a shortage of workers at the going rate.
“Of course I could say there is a dearth of affordable Ferraris,” he said, adding that policymakers should understand that the industry needs training programs with better incentives.