Industry Must Rekindle Youth Interest in Trades

High school students today are asked to list their preferred career choices, and construction comes in at No. 356 … right next to prostitution. What's happened?

Construction has always been a mainstay of the U.S. economy. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and before, building is what made the United States the United States.

Some examples include the Erie Canal (begun with private funding in 1817 and finished eight years later, joining Lake Erie to the Hudson River and then the Atlantic Ocean), the transcontinental railroad (completed in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, with the driving of the “Golden Spike,” uniting the East and West Coasts), the building of Route 66 (the “Mother Road” that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles opening up the west to motor cars) and the Hoover Dam (one of the eight wonders of the modern world and the impetus for recovery from the Great Depression).

Let us not forget the building of our great cities, their suburbs and the national infrastructure that we still enjoy today. All brought to you courtesy of the construction trades of the United States of America.

Fifty years ago, a job in the trades or the industry at large was considered a great career and was sought by many. This was so because having a trade meant having a livelihood for as long as the individual was capable of working. Because construction was an ever-present fact of life (and still is) in America, a trade was a guarantee of employment.

Fast forward to 2008 when high school students today are asked to list their preferred career choices, and construction comes in at No. 356 … right next to prostitution. What's happened?

The answer to that question has many nuanced answers. For one thing, the U.S. economy in general has shifted from a manufacturing base to an information and technology base. This has resulted in the shedding of a lot of manufacturing capacity (think of the U.S. steel industry as an example). Most consumer goods and their means of production have gone offshore, and the things that we do still make in this country are geared more toward the high technology and industrial end than to everyday consumer goods.

We've also inadvertently produced two entire generations of young people who are firmly in the “software-hardware-computer-information technology” zone. It is not surprising then, with so much emphasis on “white collar” and computer industry jobs, that construction is attracting an anemic dribble of decent job applicants.

When every high school kid today thinks he's going to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and expects to make a high five-figure starting salary right out of the gate, why bother with learning a trade? Even those who have little or no academic ability think poorly of the trades. The fact that many young people, even college graduates, end up repeating the phrase, “you want fries with that?” does not seem to register.

Yet, construction is one of the only industries that remains homegrown, necessary, vibrant and vital. It is, apparently, also one of the best-kept secrets in the country.

According to the Association for Construction Career Development, there will be 300,000 unfilled positions in the construction industry nationwide within the next 10 years. Statistics aside, that's more than a quarter of a million trade jobs that will go begging for lack of people to fill them. If that tidbit doesn't impress, consider the statistic from which it was partly derived — the mean age of construction workers today is 48.

It's common knowledge throughout the trades that getting good, quality help is an all but impossible task. Notwithstanding the influx of unskilled and semi-skilled immigrants (most notably the Hispanic migration) into the trades, nearly every business in the construction industry has a version of the same apocryphal question: Where can we get qualified help?

The procuring, training and keeping of good, reliable employees has become the “Holy Grail” of the trades in this first decade of the new century. For years, it seems, all we did was complain about the problem and adapt to the less-than-desirable applicants that we were getting. We've been scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel for far too long. The ratio of new hires that become permanent, qualified personnel has dropped precipitously.

Oh, we talked about getting together with the school systems and working toward better vocational education, to be sure. Some of us even got involved locally in trying to move the idea along. Unfortunately, all we did as an industry was talk about it. For such a large and vibrant industry, we have been woefully ineffective in pursuing an agenda that is not only in our best interests, but is vital to them.

As so often happens in the human experience, we put off, postponed, waited and ignored the problem, wringing our collective hands until it became that proverbial 500-lb. gorilla in the living room. The issue is now one of such urgency and magnitude that it can no longer be ignored. It must be dealt with and, finally, it is being dealt with along a wide front by a dedicated group of people from all aspects of our industry. The next part of this story will deal with just who, when, where and what is being done to help stimulate interest in careers in the construction industry and how you can help.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].