A generation of skilled laborers is passing from the construction scene and with it, some top-notch craftsmanship.
Contractors across Oklahoma have realized this for years, but seem powerless to stop the decline, according to officials with the statewide contracting association.
“It appears young people eschew the high-end construction trades in exchange for the lure of promising positions in technology or emerging fields,” said Dick Anderson, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Oklahoma.
Workers by the Numbers
By 2014 the construction industry will need an additional 2.9 million additional workers, according to figures from the Associated General Contractors of America. By 2012, Oklahoma will need 8,710 additional workers, a 10.35 percent increase with 2,610 annual average job-openings.
Nationwide, there are 6.9 million workers in construction. Yet, there are 275,000 trained jobs unfilled each year.
When the average craftsman is 48 years old, it is obvious the root cause is an aging population of tradesmen that is not being replaced by the smaller, upcoming youth population.
The major reason is that the jobs are hard work, said Melinda Traynor, Education and Workforce Development Director at the AGCOK. Traynor also serves as coordinator for the Construction Education Program, which was developed in cooperation with the technology centers across the state.
The AGC of Oklahoma is the oldest non-profit professional construction industry organization in Oklahoma. There are more than 300 members representing all contracting disciplines — both general, subcontractors, specialty contractors, suppliers and service providers.
Warm Bodies Needed
“They aren’t as attracted as were previous generations to working with their backs,” Traynor said.
The total number of available jobs in the U.S. is increasing while construction is seeing fewer and fewer “warm bodies” to fill the openings, Traynor said.
What’s worse is that the construction industry competes with other high-demand occupations for the same shrinking, traditional labor pool, she said.
“To say that the construction industry has a shortage is an understatement,” Traynor said.
Construction is not a comfortable desk job. Children today have been raised on computers, so they want to do something where they work more with their brains and less with their brawn.
A shortage of skilled laborers has been looming larger every year. For instance, the U.S. Department of Labor projects that between 2004-2014, jobs for carpenters will increase at a rate of 9-17 percent.
Acquiring a trade within the industry has become more difficult, Anderson said.
And, every construction industry sector is experiencing some labor shortage, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Last year, the numbers for finished and rough carpenters were highest. About 40 percent of surveys indicate they have experience “some shortage” or a “serious shortage of labor.”
The mission is critical, said AGCOK officials.
Statistics show that the industry must recruit about 180,000 workers a year to replace the 95,000 people who leave the sector annually.
Training a Must
“Back in the day” contractors learned their trade from family and friends.
Later, the sector progressed as the unions and formal apprenticeship training “programs” were performed through on-the-job training and supported with classroom instruction from real field professionals.
“Mostly, it happened because someone took the time and trouble to teach them,” Traynor said.
More recently, with the decline of many union organizations, many workers left the sector to start businesses or work in an open shop environment.
The unintended consequence was a lack of emphasis on training the next generation.
The labor shortage has an adverse affect on the products from the construction industries, impacting the quality of the work.
The construction business is aware of the problem, however, and realizes it needs to have more training and more quality control in place.
The Oklahoma association has several career initiatives, designed to educate parents and students on the career paths open to young people in the construction industry, Traynor said.
“In Oklahoma, the AGC of Oklahoma’s participation in the Construction Education Partnership allows us to play an important and supporting role in CareerTech’s Architecture and Construction Academy concept which targets the recruitment and retention of high school kids into our industry,” Traynor said.
Additionally, AGC has been training the “non-traditional” workforce, Traynor said. “Young men and women with a criminal background are being considered for the majority of the jobs within our industry.”
The program, in cooperation with Oklahoma Skills Centers, allows people to take part in construction-related training while being incarcerated. Once released, they have the monetary incentives to stick with the companies.
“I work with two different programs that train 18-21-year-old men, parolees or probationers, for careers in the construction industry,” Traynor said. “The main goal of these programs is to provide an opportunity for these kids to have a productive career and hopefully reduce their likelihood of re-offending and going back to jail.”
The program, funded by a U.S. Department of Labor grant, has not been in place long enough to have measurable data regarding its success, she said.
Foreign Born Workers
Another “non-traditional labor pool” segment growing is the “foreign-born” workforce in Oklahoma.
Calling the resource “non-traditional” seems ridiculous, Traynor said. But, many in the Oklahoma construction industry see it as exactly that.
There is no ignoring the facts, Traynor said.
Foreign-born workers account for two out of every three men entering the workforce.
Further, foreign-born workers between the ages of 34 and 44 make up nearly 80 percent of the growth of the entire labor force.
“Here in the Oklahoma construction industry we anticipate a need for just over 8,700 additional workers by the year 2012,” Traynor said.
Of course, the segment often comes with built in language barrier and training issues, Traynor said. “But, these issues can be effectively dealt with if you seek to be proactive in the resolution of this particular set of challenges.”
Construction managers gain a reliable, loyal, hard-working and respectful addition to their workforce, Traynor said.
With the crisis in numbers, the construction sector must train the next generation, Traynor said.
“Every day it will worsen if we do not take a proactive approach,” Traynor said.
Data from studies done in Texas confirm the benefits of a higher-skilled workforce:
? OSHA recorded injuries fell two-thirds.
? Productivity rose 10 percent to nearly a fourth.
? The rate for re-work dropped.
? Turnover fell by a third.
? Absences dropped nearly 60 percent.
? Worker morale and company loyalty rose.
“What we have is a growing crisis and to stick our heads in the sand or continue down this road in the same manner that we have for the last 10 – 15 years somehow seems naìve at best and irresponsible at worst,” Traynor said.
The workforce crisis in construction will continue to worsen unless the industry workers intervene, Traynor said.
One of the problems is that 32 million people, aged 17 to 24 are ready to enter the workforce. But, 11 percent are high school dropouts; nearly a third of those are considered obese and not capable of passing a simple treadmill test and 4.3 million of those qualify for the military.
Individual companies must find ways to provide their new workers trade-related training.
“Why would someone choose the construction industry as a career in Oklahoma when there is no formal training offered and no clear path for advancement?” Traynor asked. “We compete for the same labor pool as other industries who value training.”
One answer might be a collective training program or a traditional apprenticeship programs. ?