By: Mike Salsgiver
Executive Director, AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter
This article was published by the DJC on April 17 in Buildings Bridges and Roads and can be viewed here (subscription required).
In a departure from my usual approach, I’d like to use multiple columns to spotlight the construction workforce and its integral role to our industry’s success. My goal is to showcase what’s happening within the industry and what must occur outside the industry to build the construction workforce of the future.
Let’s start by looking at some basic workforce facts.
Every year 1.2 million students drop out of high school. That equates to 7,000 students each day. That’s one student every 26 seconds. About 25 percent of freshmen do not graduate from high school with their class.
Think about that for a second: fully a quarter of our young people are not making it out of high school. In some school districts, that percentage is even higher.
For construction, this crisis, combined with other factors, has led to a constantly-shrinking pool of skilled workers. Our industry is building at record volumes, and yet employers are struggling to find employees.
On top of this basic workforce shortage, we are now losing veteran workers. Every day, about 10,000 baby boomers are retiring. When combined with the 7,000 high school dropouts, we’re looking at about 17,000 fewer available workers every day. We are facing both a basic worker shortage and a talent drain.
Over the past 40 years, educators and policy-makers pushed students toward a four-year college program. As it turns out, about a third of the students who do graduate from high school are not interested in four-year programs. A systematic dismantling of the vocational education system left about a third of our young people with no clear career path to follow.
Oregon’s High School Graduation and College and Career Readiness Act (Measure 98, 2016) was proposed to minimize dropouts and create college and career preparation programs in our high schools. However, its implementation has been much more focused on those freshmen who are already on track to graduate.
For the most part, trade schools continue to be overlooked as a viable option for our young people. Informing students of their career options is essential because jumping into a career doesn’t just happen. The goal must be to create a path, not a parachute to drop students into jobs. Our industry needs skilled workers, but those future employees aren’t being exposed to alternative pathways.
So, what can we do?
AGC has invested in the past decade over $3 million in programs to grow the construction workforce. But despite our best efforts and after spending a lot of money, the construction career airplane isn’t getting off the runway.
Challenges remain. Contractors can’t find subcontractors even though this is a booming industry. I hear time and time again from our members that they can’t find employees. And when a company hires a young person, he or she tends to be around the age of 26, well out of the typical “student” age range.
Earlier this year, the AGC board of directors reviewed the situation and made the decision to support building a team whose sole focus is to understand and bring change to workforce and professional development. The board decided to inject additional resources into our workforce efforts. The first decision made was to hire two strong professionals, both of whom will work toward a goal of establishing a program that will broadly advance the industry across all sectors.
We’ve hired Frosti Adams, an experienced secondary and post-secondary educator, and Aaron Bouchane, whose background includes workforce programming. Frosti and Aaron are extremely experienced and well-networked, and they’ll help us fill the needs that will stand the industry up help it succeed for decades to come.
Together we’ll be working toward recruiting skilled workers into the trades pipeline. This newly formed team will help guide our work to tie us more tightly into a long-term plan with more concrete results.
While we look forward to this much-needed jolt of energy into the workforce development arena, it’s going to take time to rebuild what became a rather depleted workforce. The economic downturn caused businesses to hunker down and get used to getting the job done with fewer employees. The good news is, the upturn won’t be going away – at least not in the next couple of years.
Right now, construction is operating in a white-hot economy. We have to create a system that fills and sustains a pipeline of skilled, capable workers despite the challenges posed by a cyclical industry.
One of our initiatives will include getting early-age high school students directly involved in the industry through internships and other similar arrangements. We will need to work with the Bureau of Labor and Industries, Oregon Department of Education and the construction industry to understand statutory and regulatory barriers and safety laws.
Addressing these challenges will take time, but we must adapt and move aggressively. Frosti has already been hard at work and is focused on strengthening the interface with educators. With a multicultural education background, she is determined to strengthen the pathways to employment, especially for those students who struggle to understand their options after high school.
Workforce development suggests that students of all types and interests can pursue their career goals, whether it’s in the arts, in business or a woodshop class. Another important step is to build partnerships with principals and program administrators statewide to develop a plan so that students become connected with something and are informed of their options. Those changes will help put us on the path of achieving a 100 percent graduation rate for our kids.
There is no doubt that by addressing these challenges and ensuring stakeholders are on the same page, we will increase our chances for success. But this is a marathon, not a sprint. As we turn the page in how we approach building the workforce of the future, we are confident the additional investments we make in our children will allow them to be successful members of society and our industry.
This is a big first step. Will it work? Stay tuned.
Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia Chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org.