Is America Falling Short On Skills?

By Eric Dean and Bill Brown

As President Trump prepares to ramp up his push for an infrastructure package, many contractors and plant owners continue to report concerns over the skilled labor shortage. There seems to be an article every day in every major newspaper and construction industry publication about the so called “skilled labor shortage.” Is there such a desperate lack of skilled labor in the nation, or is it a disconnect between skilled labor supply and demand?

The construction industry constitutes 5% of our economy, and time is working against us as the Baby Boomers exit the workforce at a rapid rate. The situation is compounded by the thinking that anyone who doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree doesn’t deserve a decent wage. Many in the industry have their hand out, asking the Department of Labor for a grant to train their employees, while the inability to meet construction deadlines is making a negative impact on the U.S. economy.

But it’s not as gloomy as the picture being painted. It’s only part of the picture.

The building trades have a ready supply of job-ready, skilled, safe workers at any given time. They have the solutions for the so-called skilled labor shortage: training, apprenticeships, diversity and wages. While their counterparts struggle to meet the demand, the building trades have managed to maintain a ready supply of skilled workers through comprehensive training, innovative apprenticeship programs, measures to improve diversity, worker retention, and fair wages.

The answer to contractors’ and plant owners’ problem has been right under their noses all along.

The building trades invest in comprehensive training including in-depth safety training, saving time and money for contractors (employers) and end users (customers). The top most desired quality the employers and customers look for in a workforce is safety. A safe workforce reduces injuries, fatalities and costly delays adding up to huge cost savings.

President Trump expressed his support for the building trades at the NABTU Legislative Conference back in April and before a welcoming audience of building trades at the Rivertowne Marina in Cincinnati’s East End in August. More importantly, he recently announced plans to make expansion of apprenticeship programs the center of his labor policy as an answer to the skilled labor shortage. The president has declared s week in June to be “Workforce Development Week” to recognize the important role apprenticeships play in closing the skills gap.

At a White House press briefing in June, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta acknowledge the success of apprenticeship programs in the building trades.

Apprentices play an essential role in the growth and development of a safe and highly-trained workforce just as resident doctors are necessary to meet critical needs at a hospital. Per the U.S. Department of Labor, 9 in 10 Americans who complete apprentice training land a job, and their average starting salary is $60,000 a year. The return on investment for apprentices is impressive – for every dollar spent on apprenticeship, employers get an average of $1.47 back in increased productivity, reduced waste and greater frontline innovation.

While many contractors report trouble finding skilled labor, accredited apprenticeship programs in the building trades churn out highly-trained and skilled apprentices with on-the-job training every day. Take the Iron Workers’ (IW) earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship model for example. The 3-4-year IW apprentice program provides 6000-8000 hours of on-the-job training and over 700 hours of classroom training. Apprentices are paired with multiple employers over the course of the program. The IW training centers collectively spend between $80 million and $90 million a year in training a skilled labor force and average nearly 50,000 applications every year. Clearly, there’s no shortage of interest in the trades. Once they become journeymen, they complete journeymen upgrade training to keep their skills sharp just as continuing education credits are necessary for engineers and lawyers. Every year on average 2000-4000 journeymen are certified in some crucial skill. The IW alone has nearly 80,000 well-trained journeymen and nearly 20,000 apprentices as of April 2017.

Employers are reporting a severe welder shortage. It’s the most critical demand in the industry. Once again, the building trades have armies of certified welders. The IW alone has more than 12,000 certified welders in the U.S. and nearly 5,600 in Canada and the certifications are transferable among jobs eliminating the need for expensive retesting. They even come with easy online credential verification.

The building trades are also taking steps to improve diversity and retention rates as a part of the solution to the skilled labor shortage. For example, the IW recently introduced a generous paid maternity leave benefit. Such initiatives help improve recruiting and retention rates and those investments make good economic sense. Women make up half of the population and they are a viable answer to the problem.

The immigration policy debate is irrelevant to the skilled labor shortage. How can we remedy the “skilled labor” shortage with cheap, low-skilled labor? The reason some advocate for cheap foreign labor is just that – it’s cheap. The fact that the building trades have a ready supply of skilled workers doesn’t change no matter the direction the immigration policy goes.

The Construction industry has experienced stagnant growth in wages for decades per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The push for an unfettered supply of low-skill, low-wage workers over the past 40 years by some politicians and businesses has led to exploitation, wage theft, safety violations, and misclassification of workers.

It’s not an accident that President Trump met with the leadership of organizations that supply a skilled construction workforce on his first day in office. For his Buy American – Hire American executive order and the proposed infrastructure plan to be a reality, the answer must be found at home and it is simple – the building trades. If contractors and end users need skilled labor, they must know where to look, set aside any preconceived notions and misconceptions about the building trades and be willing to invest in skilled labor.

Eric Dean is the General President of the Iron Workers (IW) and Bill Brown is the CEO of Ben Hur Construction and Co-Chair of Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (IMPACT).