The bipartisan infrastructure bill will invest more than half a trillion dollars in American infrastructure over five years. It was estimated that this could more than create 3 million Jobs in the construction industry, which brings hundreds of thousands of new job opportunities every year.
But once federal funds start flowing, states could struggle to find workers with the skills to meet their transformation goals. As details of a ‘generational opportunity’ were discussed and in the months since the Infrastructure Act was signed, job vacancies in the construction industry have increased steadily and significantly.
“Job vacancies were at an all-time high in April,” said Kenneth Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). “If you go back month by month and compare the same months from previous years, they are now setting records for five or six months in a row.”
The April forecast from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost half a million openings, is larger than that 20 year high of 438,000 reached in April 2019. While the number of construction jobs to fill may be unprecedented, labor demand is a long-term concern, says Halene Sigmund, president and CEO of the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington (CITC).
CITC has been building “the people who are building the Northwest” for nearly four decades. “I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years and it’s still the same,” says Sigmund. “Employers’ #1 concern is finding skilled workers.”
Sigmund’s organization knows what it takes to produce such workers and routinely does so, as do other training and apprenticeship programs around the country. The question is whether proven strategies can be implemented quickly enough to develop a workforce that delivers the benefits that infrastructure funding is designed to foster.
PJ Moss, the training coordinator for the Seattle Area Pipe Trades (SAPT), runs a program that is currently training 550 workers for jobs in plumbing, pipe assembly, refrigeration and HVAC. It is a Registered Apprenticeship (RAP) program, a model first developed in the late 1930s to ensure that apprentices are not simply exploited as cheap labor but are educated and given opportunities for advancement.
RAPs exist in every state, are overseen by the Department of Labor (DOL) and administered by either the DOL or a state agency. In order to be “registered” they must meet standards for program development and delivery. Apprentices are paid and can acquire state-recognized qualifications.
Founded in 1968, SAPT has set new records for candidates in the last six interview cycles, Moss says, better than in the last 25 or 30 years. This includes a competitive wage package for apprentices, but SAPT is also focused on creating an open, inclusive culture. Workers who enjoy their work speak up in their communities.
“Out of about 400 interviews we conducted during our application period alone in the last few months, maybe 10 said they found us online,” says Moss. “The others said they go to church with someone who told them about us, or their child plays baseball with a boy or girl from our training program.”
Training employees is one thing, but Moss thinks keeping them on the job might be even more important. The average five-year retention rate for SATP-trained employees is 95 percent. Recruitment strategies play a role here; the average age of SATP apprentices is 31 years.
In general, Moss finds that applicants who have already tried a career and have not enjoyed it are most likely to embrace the opportunities it offers. He’s not keen on prospecting in high schools. “A lot of my peers in the education industry probably scoff at me for it, but the return isn’t there.”
CITC is currently working with almost 300 employers to offer registered apprenticeships in 11 construction trades. Currently, 1,400 workers are enrolled in programs lasting three to five years, mostly open shop (non-union).
Sigmund sees great recruiting opportunities. Like Moss, she notes that most people learn about education through word of mouth, but her program staff are actively involved in going into high schools to talk about it. She sees more and more military veterans undergoing training and invests in working with them.
“Pre-training opportunities are at the top, probably second only to word of mouth,” says Sigmund. pre-training programs Skills provided by employers, educators, or nonprofit organizations can provide individuals with skills that will help them be successful in a RAP.
“We have preparatory programs that are housed in K-12 schools, in the two-year college system, and many are supported by community-based organizations,” says Jody Robbins, director of training programs at the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. “We’ve put a lot of excitement and energy into this pipeline, and our construction programs don’t leave any applicants unattended.”
Bill Cooper, director of diversity strategies at Atlantic Constructors Inc. (ACI) in Richmond, Virginia, highlights another focus for recruiting. Asians, blacks and women are underrepresented in the construction industry. “We have the opportunity to go out and educate them about the possibilities of a career in construction.”
ACI offers registered apprenticeships in its 130,000 square foot manufacturing workshop. There’s a difference between diversity and inclusion, says Cooper. “Diversity is the mix, but inclusion makes the mix – people want to understand what’s possible for them and that’s what I think education achieves.”
Paid apprenticeships, a program element not limited to registered apprenticeships, are essential to inclusion and create an open door for applicants from all walks of life, including young professionals who want a change but already have families to support.
Construction is essential
State and local governments can help attract the labor force needed for their infrastructure projects by paying more attention to technical education, says Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives at AGC. “The vast majority of high school students and young adults who want to move from one sector to another never hear about career opportunities in construction.”
The AGC of Washington Education Foundation led the development of a curriculum created by the construction industry: “Core Plus construction‘ to prepare students for entry-level construction jobs, apprenticeships or other post-secondary education. In 2020, the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction approved it and added it to its course equivalencies, making it eligible for high school credits in math, science, and language arts.
There is a return on this type of public sector investment, Turmil says. Labor shortages can delay projects and drive up their costs. When skilled labor is scarce, contracts with mandates to hire local workers won’t solve the shortage – but they can further slow progress and put inexperienced workers at risk.
Women make up 51 percent of the total workforce, but only 5 or 6 percent of those employed in construction. “If we find more ways to attract women and African Americans to the industry, we probably won’t be talking about labor shortages as much as we are now,” Turmil says. As a step in that direction, AGC has one digital recruitment program with the theme “Construction Is Essential”.
Construction jobs pay well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2021, was the median annual wage for all construction jobs $48,210higher than the median of $45,760 for all occupations.
According to Turmail, there are many reasons why state and local officials have a vested interest in more people pursuing careers in construction. “I’ve never invited my kids to look at a press release I’ve written and admire how wonderful it is, but I’ve never met a construction worker who hasn’t taken a family member to show off the airport or highway they are.” to build.”
Training Equal personnel development
The potential of the federal infrastructure funds to create not only employment opportunities but actual jobs can be slowed down by a shortage of skilled workers. But the fact that funds are coming, and in such large quantities, could provide enough energy to break through this barrier.
“It’s a positive signal that we haven’t had in a long time,” says AGC’s Simonson. “We have a lot more money for highways and other types of infrastructure; I hope this message reaches people who are considering a career or what type of career training programs they would like to support.”
Training skilled workers is not the only reason for the construction industry to put more effort into developing training programs. “I tell people that training is a personal development plan for their industry, and it really is,” says Sigmund.
AGC convened a National Construction Industry Workforce Summit in October 2021 where work groups will share and develop strategies for recruitment, training and development. “Apprenticeships, community college training programs, private training programs, high school programs, we need it all,” says Turmail. “No solution is better than the other. We need them all.”