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The United States needs an estimated 7 million more homes to house everyone who needs shelter. But to build all those homes, experts say, America would need many more construction workers.
“The biggest challenge that the construction industry is facing, to put it tongue in cheek, is that people don’t want their babies to grow up to be construction workers,” said Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives at the Associated General Contractors of America, an industry group that’s been calling for more workforce development.
For decades, Turmail said, many educators and policymakers have been encouraging students to go to a four-year college, leading to a shortage of skilled tradespeople such as electricians and plumbers. Most of the tradespeople he knows, Turmail added, got into the business because of a personal contact.
And now, following both the Great Recession of 2008 and the construction cutbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic, more workers are leaving the industry than entering it, according to the National Center for Construction Education and Research.
“If there are fewer workers available, construction takes longer,” said Lily Roberts, managing director for inclusive growth at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The construction industry says it is experiencing a workforce shortage and has been since well before the pandemic. Employment isn’t growing fast enough, said Erika Walter, director of media relations for Associated Builders and Contractors, a national industry group.
An analysis released earlier this month by the Associated Builders and Contractors found that at the end of November there were about 459,000 job openings in the industry. The 5.4 percent job opening rate was the highest since 2000.
Several states have taken steps in recent years to boost their construction workforces. They’re funding apprenticeships, investing in community college programs and offering grants to benefit specific industries, all in hopes of building a domestic pipeline of skilled construction workers. In Montana, nearly 3,000 apprentices are now working through a state program that links students to industry sponsors.
“The big surprise in 2023 for me was that all of a sudden these governors did more than just pump money into the labor shortage problem,” said Karl Eckhart, vice president of intergovernmental affairs for the National Association of Home Builders. “We need to expedite this process so we can at least get shovels under the ground.”
The U.S. construction industry lost nearly 30 percent of its workforce during the Great Recession of 2008, and had barely recovered before the COVID-19 pandemic hit it again, as outlined by a study shared last spring by economists at the University of Utah and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The authors attributed much of the shortage, however, to the federal Secure Communities immigration crackdown of the Obama administration.
“If a shortage of lower-skilled labor makes it more difficult to find workers to finish framing a house, this will also reduce demand for electricians and plumbers required at the subsequent stage of construction,” the authors wrote.
But another issue is that the industry’s labor force is headed toward retirement. More than 1 in 5 construction workers are 55 and older, and much of the workforce will be retiring in the coming decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For now, though, roughly 68 percent of construction firms say their job applicants lack the skills they need, according to an Associated General Contractors survey last year.
“We’ve invested hundreds of millions into workforce training, because not only do we need homes, but the average age of an electrician in America is around 50 years old,” said Eckhart, of the National Association of Home Builders.
“If you’re, you know, Gen X or younger, your guidance counselor never said, ‘Hey, you should become an electrician.’ Now the industry has lost that potential pool of talent.”
Building a workforce
Among the challenges, experts and studies say, is that the construction industry isn’t doing enough to recruit different types of people.
According to a 2022 U.S. Department of Labor report, many apprentice programs for construction and trade-based skills often have sponsors who do not recruit or hire individuals from underrepresented groups — and may not even be aware of how to recruit members of those groups.
“In the construction industry, a generally untapped group of potential employees is women, including women of color,” Roberts, of the Center for American Progress, said.
Women and people of color are underrepresented in the construction industry and especially in the higher-paid, higher-skilled trades, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Rose Khattar, director of economic analysis for inclusive economy at the Center for American Progress, said some jurisdictions have taken steps to expand the diversity of their workforce through training.
And in recent months, several states have touted new investments in trades education.
In November alone, for example, New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that more than $12 million in grant money would be invested into training roughly 2,000 workers in various fields, including programs for welding, machine maintenance and construction work.
Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine announced that 35 Ohio high school programs would receive almost $200 million in grant money to expand training facilities in areas including the electrical trades, welding and carpentry.
And Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, signed an executive order requiring officials overseeing state construction projects of more than $5 million to consider using contractors participating in registered apprenticeship programs.
“I think the stigma of the construction industry is that you’re going into building trades because you couldn’t do anything else,” said Shelly Bell, vice president of workforce development at Florida’s Tallahassee Community College, which has a trades education curriculum tied to a larger, state-sponsored program.
There’s plenty of need, she pointed out, and long-term job security given the country’s housing shortage. “We want our students to see a career in construction that includes upward mobility and professional fulfillment,” she said.
Policymakers should take heed of ongoing workforce needs for another reason as well, Eckhart said.
“If you’re not investing in training skilled workers, that only hurts the consumer,” he said. “Less-skilled workers means homes that won’t be stable and functional, and you can’t afford to make shortcuts when it comes to building homes.”
Stateline, founded in 1998, provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.
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