One Solution to a Shortage of Skilled Workers? Diversify the Construction Industry

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The Biden administration estimates that if the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill passes, it could add two million jobs per year over a decade.

But those jobs, mostly in construction, may be difficult to fill in an industry that is already experiencing labor shortages, with 321,000 unfilled jobs in July.

One way some industry leaders see to address the scarcity of skilled workers? Diversify the industry.

Nearly 90 percent of the 10.8 million people employed by the construction industry are white, and just 11 percent are women, according to the Department of Labor. Despite efforts in recent decades to make the industry more inclusive, and some progress, a long history of exclusionary hiring practices and informal recruitment networks has blocked some groups from opportunities.

If the infrastructure bill passes, the industry could be short a million and a half to two million workers by 2025, estimates Boyd Worsham, the president of the National Center for Construction Education and Research. That would create an immediate challenge, but also an opportunity to hire from communities that the industry has ignored.

“Traditionally, heavy industries have not been diverse,” said Kevin DeGood, director of infrastructure policy at the liberal Center for American Progress. “The benefits for labor should flow to those communities where the work is going to be done and where jobs traditionally haven’t been.”

The Biden administration’s initial infrastructure proposal earmarked $100 billion for new training programs, including $12 billion specifically for workers from underserved communities. (While this funding was cut from the infrastructure bill, President Biden’s $3.5 trillion social policy package does include work force training.) And some industry leaders who are seeking to plug existing talent shortages are already focusing on broadening recruitment.

“We need diversity because it improves the outcome,” Mr. Worsham said. “Different life experiences and different ways of looking at things can apply to the work.”

Initiatives in Maryland, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere show the promise of focusing on underrepresented groups — for both the construction industry and for local communities.

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In Baltimore, a pre-apprenticeship program called Project JumpStart has trained more than 800 participants, most of them formerly incarcerated, for construction jobs. Local building contractors started the program 15 years ago, when Johns Hopkins University sought to build a biotech campus in a predominantly Black neighborhood and employ residents during construction. It has placed 75 percent of its graduates in jobs.

Mike Henderson, who runs JumpStart and has testified in Congress about its success, said it had been a meaningful way to expand the work force, create middle-class jobs and dispel hurtful stereotypes about his hometown.

“Remember the Freddie Gray riots?” said Mr. Henderson, a chapter president of the Associated Builders and Contractors. “Baltimore was taking an incredible P.R. hit. The narrative was that nobody really wanted to work, that people were happy to protest. We knew that wasn’t true.”

Pushing past stereotypes has also been a driving factor for an Associated Builders and Contractors program that trains prisoners at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, in carpentry and electrical work.

“When they come out of their incarceration period, they can fully re-enter society, and can better define their own long-term employment prospects,” said the local chapter president, David Helveston. About 1,400 prisoners have completed the program since it started in 2010.

Other programs, such as Power UP in Birmingham, Ala., 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 trade unions now set aside 15 percent of their job slots for NEW graduates. (It was 10 percent about five years ago.)

In the early ’80s, women could show up at a construction site, tools in hand, and wouldn’t be able to find work, Ms. Culhane said. Despite progress, she said, there’s still work to be done, especially in providing access for women of color to these “life-sustaining, family-sustaining careers.” Women still fill just 3 percent of “hands on tools” jobs (as opposed to management and administrative jobs) in the construction industry, according to NEW.

To improve those disparities, other programs target a younger audience, when stereotypes about who can work in construction may be less entrenched. The Construction Education Foundation of Georgia, founded in 1993, shares construction skills and training with around 20,000 students in 175 elementary and secondary schools statewide. In districts that fully adopt the program, students encounter construction education from second grade on, including themed lesson plans in math and science classes, and even apprenticeship programs in high school to help students graduate into the field with a job.

“We’re building bridges between industry and education, and all genders and ethnicities are able to try this out,” said Zach Fields, vice president of the foundation.

Actively opening the construction industry to a broader range of people would increase the pool of recruits, allowing for more opportunities to train them to assume in-demand positions. But it wouldn’t be a silver bullet. Better wages, labor standards and benefits would also help attract more workers to long-term careers in the skilled trades, especially when wages are rising for jobs that require less training.

Andrew Garin, an economics professor at the University of Illinois, said the overall economic data didn’t point to a shortage of workers building infrastructure as much as a shortage of workers at the going rate.

“Sure, I could say there’s a shortage of affordable Ferraris,” he said, adding that policymakers should understand that the industry needs training programs with better incentives.

Mr. DeGood believes that if the final social policy bill does not include money for training, Congress will eventually appropriate more funding. It will become obvious, he said, that you can’t “snap your fingers and create a new labor force.”

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