Skilled Labor: A Growing Problem

For the past few years, news has been dominated by stories about the economy. Unemployment rates are high, people aren’t spending and housing prices that once tumbled now are beginning a shaky ascent to stabilization.

One area not well publicized, though, is the struggles of construction-related companies finding skilled, dependable workers in the trades. A recent report from McGraw-Hill Construction, titled “Construction Industry Workforce Shortages: Role of Certification, Training and Green Jobs in Filling the Gaps,” revealed 69 percent of architect, engineer and contractor professionals expect skilled workforce shortages in the next three years. More than 40 percent of construction workers are baby boomers who are approaching retirement age.

The Way We Were

Once upon a time, children played outside, took things apart, then spent hours learning how to put them back together, often with personalized touches. Gary Randone, owner of RanTeso Home Improvements LLC, Long Island, N.Y., was one such child. “Kids didn’t go to their parents for money in the ‘60s,” he reflects. “We were always taking our bikes apart and building something. Everybody did that. When I was a kid, I’d take radios apart and make homemade antennas, but kids don’t do that anymore. They want phones and laptops instantly and don’t want to work too hard for it. It’s a different era now.”

Part of today’s era encompasses the widespread emphasis on four-year college degrees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, an estimated 21.6 million students were expected to attend American colleges and universities in fall of 2012, an increase of 6.2 million students compared to fall of 2000.

Randone, who is at the younger end of the baby boomer generation, expresses concern about the trend away from education in the trades. “I read a statistic somewhere saying that a baby boomer retires every 15 seconds,” he says. “All the experienced trade guys are 50-plus or in their 60s and still working, but the younger generation isn’t there. Who’s going to replace those skilled workers?”

He believes the shortage is directly correlated with the school systems. “Schools aren’t emphasizing that the trades can be a good career,” he says. “They’re told about going to college. I’m not knocking college. I think everyone should go for at least two years to get a broader horizon, but it’s not a cure-all for getting a good job. I know a lot of people with master’s degrees who are out of work.”

Education Moves the World

It’s often said teachers are the professionals who teach other professionals. Good educators can make or break a subject for a student and can inspire a student toward a career or drive them away. Leesburg, Va.-based SkillsUSA, a partnership of students, teachers and industry, teaches necessary skills and inspires students to pursue the trades.

Don Runyan recently retired after 40 years of teaching, 28 of which he spent with SkillsUSA. He taught at Cleveland High School in Reseda, Calif., and was named 2012 Advisor of the Year. Thousands of students have thrived under his instruction, many of whom went on to pursue careers in their fields.

Runyan, who taught architecture, mechanical drafting and urban planning classes, approached teaching in two parts: One part in the technical area and one part in leadership skills, such as public speaking and other soft skills such as maintaining eye contact and having a confident handshake. “A young person needs to learn how to speak, whether it’s speaking to a single person like in a job interview or speaking to a crowd communicating an idea,” Runyan says.

He believes teachers have a duty to inspire their students. “There’s no such thing as a failure as a student,” he says. “The only time there’s a failure is when the educator fails to communicate and fails to connect. Once you connect, anybody in their right mind is going to desire an education because, fundamentally, education is what moves the world forward.”

Although Runyan’s Los Angeles-area school had a reputation for being gang-infested, he inspired his students and connected with them to a level that they took ownership of the class and, even if Runyan stepped out of the classroom for an extended period, they would continue their work, he says. Discipline was never a problem once they took ownership, Runyan says.

Runyan has seen work ethics deteriorate throughout the generations. “Young people today are great, wonderful people. They are very intelligent in so many ways. They know when something is valuable and is going to benefit them,” he clarifies. “But your average young person today does not have the work ethic you would have found in my generation. Today’s generation is not interested in things unless they happen immediately. They’re hard to stay focused. I don’t think they have thoughts about ethics or about stealing and honesty. They most certainly don’t have an understanding of what the employer is looking for.”

Runyan encourages his students to put themselves in a potential employer’s shoes and to concentrate on the soft skills. Many have found success through that. “They own their success in life,” he says. “That is theirs.”

Many of Runyan’s students apply their skills in everyday life. One student from Guatemala designed house plans for his parents who still live there, then took a year off to build the house. Two other students designed plans for a cabin in 11th grade and by the end of 12th grade had the cabin built. Today, one of those students is a general residential contractor and another is building casinos in Las Vegas. Yet another former student recently completed a build of Niemen Marcus in California, which was close enough to Runyan’s school that he was able to travel to the jobsite with his students. “When you enlighten people, they have capabilities; you unleash their potential,” Runyan says. “There is basically no limit.”

Difficulties and Challenges

Although it’s commonplace to hear of workers losing their jobs and small businesses shutting their doors, the plumber that Long Island remodeler Gary Randone teams with has quite the opposite problem. “His problem isn’t how much work; it’s that he has no one to help him,” Randone says. “His phone rings off the hook but he can’t find competent skilled tradespeople to help him. Instead, he picks the most profitable job and goes from there. Quality guys will always be busy.”

Randone also cites pay scales as being a deterrent toward the trades. “In the ‘80s, carpenters were paid about $18 to $20 per hour,” he says. “But it’s not much more now. It hasn’t gone up. Kids look at that versus what they can make if they get a college degree. They’re not looking to go into a trade, work hard and sweat yet not make a decent salary. If you get into a union that’s one thing, but that’s very difficult.”

Although Randone says it’s difficult to pay his workers well and offer benefits in the private sector, he also says it’s worth it to pay what good workers are worth. “I have a very certain type of clientele I cater to so I need good guys who are smart,” he says. “They appreciate quality work and, on the same side of the coin, they’re willing to pay for it. I need paying clients to pay workers well. I thought last year would be my best year financially, and this year is better.”

Beyond sheer lack of numbers, Randone also sees a problem in the quality of workers. “It seems like people are going into the trades who can’t do anything else or find a decent job, so they swing a hammer,” he asserts. “It’s difficult to find a good guy who’s like a family man — well-rounded, smart and responsible. It’s tough to find that all in one ball.”

Communication Is Key

Frank Taylor, an instructor who works with 10th through 12th graders with Frederick County Career and Technical Center in Frederick, Md., was the instructor for the silver-winning team at this year’s SkillsUSA TeamWorks national competition. The competition required his students build a laundry room, which required technical skills in the areas of carpentry, electricity, masonry and plumbing. They also had to interpret plans and present judges with a critical path schedule of construction.

After teaching for 30 years, Taylor has seen many students pursue successful fields in the trades. “I have recent graduates who are in the field, those who are in carpentry and some as estimators. Others have gone to work in places that sell building products, and I have several students who have started their own companies,” he says. “When I go to home shows it’s like a reunion.”

Taylor first became involved with SkillsUSA as a student in 1976 and then as a teacher since 1984. “One of the strong activities SkillsUSA tries to promote is professional and technical skill development,” he says.

Community members formed a nonprofit foundation, the Frederick County Student Construction Trades Foundation, which is comprised of members of the community who are part of the construction industry and represent businesses from mechanical companies to contractors to a real estate agent and even someone who handles house settlements. The foundation provides funding for students to build a home. Students travel to the site to construct different phases of the home. Once complete, it goes up for sale and proceeds go toward the next home for land and materials. Leftover proceeds help fund scholarships.

Taylor has seen an ebb and flow of interest in the trades throughout his 30 years as an educator. “I know a lot of contractors are concerned about the future of attracting youth to the work place,” he says.

“By businesses being involved in local construction programs, not only is it a good recruitment tool for letting parents and students see what kind of career opportunities are available, but it also keeps the educational programs in direct dialog with industry,” Taylor says. “That communication link and partnership is critical to ensure the educational community is up to date and providing skills that are needed in business. We have to keep that dialog going.”