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The challenge of today’s labor market

Jan. 9, 2017
We have become an information society and lost a good deal of our manufacturing capabilities. Thus, the allure of working with one’s hands is not as great as it once was simply because of the perceived lack of opportunity by the general public. Second, our education system has been canted toward college education, regardless of the ability or eagerness of the students to get that “degree,” at the expense of vocational training.
Image: iStock/ThinkStock.

Stating the obvious: the labor market, not only in the trades but across the board, in America is really difficult today. I have been following the subject closely since before the turn of the present century, and job opportunities in the trades are begging for people to fill them. It is more difficult to man projects and fill out crews today than any time in recent memory.  Why? The answer is complex. It involves our education system as well as the social constructs that we, as a nation, have embodied. We ask to anyone who will listen, “Where are the young people who want to learn a trade?” The answers we get do not satisfy.

First, we have become an information society and lost a good deal of our manufacturing capabilities. Thus, the allure of working with one’s hands is not as great as it once was simply because of the perceived lack of opportunity by the general public. Second, our education system has been canted toward college education, regardless of the ability or eagerness of the students to get that “degree,” at the expense of vocational training.

You may recall that shop classes were required in the curriculum of most high schools back in the 60s, 70s and early 80s. A student with aptitude was usually encouraged to explore his abilities and many found satisfying work in the trades. As well, they enjoyed good pay, benefits and generally satisfaction in their jobs. 

Fast forward to today. A large, and some say growing, segment of the 18- to 24-year-old age group are simply not interested in the trades or many other jobs which require physical labor. The change in attitude was subtle at first, but the advent and explosion of cyberspace and the technology it engenders moved rapidly to disinterest our prime recruiting group. Nor is this solely an American phenomenon.

Some years ago I did an article on a group of motivated individuals who were promoting a concept called Construction Career Days. This organization goes around the country putting on full blown construction trade fares for high school students, complete with equipment, machinery and hands on demonstrations. At the same time, they lobby the school districts, congressional offices and anyone who will listen about the advantages of vocational training. A recent email from Humberto Martinez is indicative of the direction this is all heading:

“Since we began the CCD Program in 1999 I have observed the pendulum swinging, ever so slowly but steadily, back to more emphasis in career technology programs in our schools. In 1999 and for a few short years after, CCD team members found themselves speaking before school boards, superintendents and their association conferences and with individual politicians, asking them not to reduce funding for these programs. Now I am seeing a trend in the other direction. “

Further Martinez included an informative link (interestingly, the title of the link says it all) http://qz.com/819042/the-world-would-be-1-1-trillion-richer-if-it-treated-its-young-people-more-like-germany/) describing the world labor market and how other countries have dealt with the problem. Germany and Switzerland have invested much capital in programs, which give students the opportunity to choose, while in high school, where their best interests lie as far as academia or trade schools lie. Other countries such as Greece, Italy, and to a lesser extent, England, are mired in labor markets that are flat or declining. Pricewaterhouse Coopers prepared an index which is very telling. Like Germany and Switzerland, the U.S. is not rated here, but you can judge for yourself where we might fit in:

Country

PwC index ranking

NEET* rates

Potential GDP increase

Turkey

31

36.3%

$67 billion

Portugal

32

23.9

10

Spain

33

29

80

Greece

34

31.3

14

Italy

35

35

156

 

 

 

*NEET means not in education, employment or training

The United States can go either way at this point, in my opinion. The United Association, PHCC National Association, Construction Career Days and a few other organizations are making a valiant effort to get apprenticeship programs into our high schools and even some junior colleges. Fortunately many school boards and some politician’s now see the need, are starting to take notice and get the programs funded. Selling the programs to our young people is the next step and that may be problematic if we can’t find the right way to engage them.

That’s where you readers come in. It is not enough to bemoan the fact that we can’t get good help anymore. We need to contact our school boards (or get on a school board), congressional people, the news media and anyone else who can put the message out there.  Make the issue of vocational training imperative, because it is. Talk to young people you meet. If Humberto Martinez is correct, and the tide is turning, now would be a great time to help it float our boats. It requires effort, but what worthwhile thing doesn’t?

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].

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