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Turning the Skilled Labor Shortage Around, One Student at a Time

There is a skilled labor shortage in this country and in the spring of 2022, the number of unfilled jobs in the construction industry was estimated to be between 300,000 and 400,000, according to a report by the Home Builders Institute (HBI).

The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), a national organization representing nonunion construction interests, is also monitoring the labor shortage. ABC found that to meet the current demand for skilled labor, the construction industry needs to attract nearly 650,000 workers on top of the normal pace of hiring. Assuming the demand for skilled labor has remained relatively level over the past decade, why are we now seeing this shortage?

As with almost everything else, we must consider the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the initial reduction in workforce and pace to rehire has contributed to the shortage, many more foundational issues have been developing for years. For example, the industry is fighting against a growing knowledge gap that is driven primarily by an aging workforce that is at, or very close to, retirement age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average retirement age in the industry is 61 and currently more than 20% of construction workers are older than 55. There has also been a subsequent decline in workers ages 25-54, so in a few short years that knowledge gap will grow even further.

The reduction in developmental programs for students at the middle and high school levels is also contributing to the lower volume of skilled workers. Across the country, shop classes have been eliminated, often a result of curricula evolving to focus on college placement and standardized testing emphasizing math and language arts. Shop class is critical in exposing students to working with tools and understanding safety in a controlled environment. Without shop class, many students simply don’t explore careers in carpentry.

Fortunately, when it comes to apprenticeship programs, there is good news. After a steady decline over the past decade or so, apprenticeships were at an all-time high in 2019. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, a reduced year-over-year number of 220,000 people started an apprenticeship program, but this was still above the 10-year average.

I am a big believer in these types of programs and I’m happy to see some real change right here in our local community. The Chester County Intermediate Unit 24 (CCIU) was recently approved for the first-ever state-registered pre-apprenticeship program in the county. Beginning this fall, the “Build Your Trade” Pre-Apprenticeship program was offered at the CCIU's Technical College High School (TCHS), a public high school specializing in career and technical education for students in grades 10-12. After getting off to a great start, in October 2022 the Governor’s office invested another $118,470 to further expand the program.

A Day in the Classroom at Chester County Technical College High School

This is all good news and it will go a long way in developing more opportunities for the young people in our community. But I’m a hands-on guy, so last month I spent the afternoon with the carpentry class at CCIU TCHS Pickering where I shared my experience in the industry, including how I got started, the challenges I faced, and the path my career and business has taken. My goal was to expose the students to the many different types of careers available to them in construction.

We had a great conversation in the classroom, but the highlight of the day was going into the shop. I brought our cold metal cutting technology, battery operated circular saw and let the students cut some metal. We had thicknesses from stanchions to ceiling grid to cut. The students really enjoyed the hands-on experience and were engaged and interested. That was a plus! To be able to interact with and advise young people interested in the trades was certainly a rewarding experience and something that I will continue to do.

We hear so much about the gap in the skilled labor force and while it is real, it seems that the tide is turning. Between the data emerging around apprenticeships and the enthusiasm I saw in the school that day, I am optimistic that we will continue to close the gap, providing relief for the economy and a great career for the individuals who choose this path.


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