Belaboring the Point

To solve the labor problem, we need a concerted effort by contractors, educators, policy makers, and manufacturers

December 13, 2015
Solving the labor problem for the construction industry will require a concerted effort by contractors, educators, policy makers, and manufacturers

I remember taking an aptitude test in 1967 during freshman orientation at Lehigh University, where I and most of the 900 other freshman were enrolled in the engineering curriculum. Presumably this test would confirm or rebuff our choice. My results pointed to an occupation as a librarian. 

In some ways it made sense—I thought logically, was detail-oriented, and liked math and word problems and puzzles. But those characteristics could come in handy in any number of vocations, including carpentry, which is how I ended up making my living for 20 years. 

The same test today might recommend something different, but I can guarantee that carpentry would be far down the list. That’s mainly because taking up a trade is not something our society values—at least not until our cars stop running or the air conditioning quits or a faucet springs a leak. In fact, the debate among U.S. educators between a standard college-prep curriculum and one designed to match a variety of student interests, abilities, and needs has been raging for more than a century. At the moment, the college-prep option is winning, which means our industry is losing.

Recent data from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies shows that the percentage of workers in the remodeling industry aged 55 and over has nearly doubled since 2002. Some of that is migration from manufacturing jobs, but it confirms what I think we all know: Fewer young people are pursuing a vocation in the construction trades. 

We’ve had skilled-labor shortages before, but this one seems different. The Great Recession played a major role. For one thing, many workers who left or were forced out of the industry never came back. Remodelers cut wages and benefits to survive, but didn’t restore them during the recovery, preferring to use subcontractors. 

Past labor shortages have always seemed to resolve themselves, but I don’t think we should assume that this one will. Unstable government policy has prevented immigration from filling the void as it has historically done. In addition, remodeling is now vastly more complex—new materials are proliferating, building science theory is in flux, and codes are constantly being revised. That makes it more difficult and much more expensive to train people, and it gives remodelers even less reason to hire green employees.

I think it’s folly to expect that a solution will spontaneously appear in piecemeal fashion. The buddy system that I learned under—pairing older, experienced workers with young newcomers—won’t work anymore. To solve the problem, we need a concerted effort by contractors, educators, policy makers, and manufacturers. The strategy needs to begin early—as early as pre-school—and needs a marketing component to polish the industry’s image, coordination with public school education to restore vocational education, and funding from all stakeholders. That includes manufacturers, which have more to gain than anyone if they want to sustain a workforce capable of properly installing the products they make. 


About the Author

About the Author

Sal Alfano is executive editor for Professional, 202.365.9070

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