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

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.

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