The Long Game

Jan. 1, 2024
Replenishing the construction industry’s bench one student at a time

By Carrie Gardenhire, Contributing Author

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) directs $350 billion toward federal highway programs. Construction companies want to expand and accept additional projects, but hiring challenges are causing some restraint.

In 2023, construction job openings reached record numbers, emphasizing the severity of the industry’s labor shortage.

The industry needs a deep bench, and companies are exploring new strategies to replenish their workforce and address this issue long-term.

The high school student population is often overlooked, but its potential should not be underestimated. By tapping into this younger demographic with opportunities to explore the construction industry via hands-on programs, companies can build a strong pipeline of future construction workers who are passionate about their jobs and have real-life experience from the onset.

Historically, companies have been held back from investing in school-to-work opportunities by misconceptions. It’s imperative for employers to gain a comprehensive understanding of what is and isn’t within the realm of possibilities to make this solution viable long-term.

For example, while labor laws may restrict individuals under the age of 18 from certain activities, they are typically allowed on construction sites. They are even allowed to perform certain tasks as part of an educational program.

For some companies, investing in entry-level employees may seem foolhardy, considering people may not stay in the industry or could leave for another position. Then their investment is lost. However, nurturing a person’s interest in trade professions and equipping them with opportunities to hone their skills can encourage them to pursue a construction career that they might have otherwise overlooked.

Liability concerns is another common deterrent. It makes sense from the perspective of company leadership; allowing students to shadow on-site project teams is a risk. But workers' compensation policies generally cover students in these programs.

Investingating local and state laws, requirements and restrictions carefully is crucial as they can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. As a benchmark, the minimum criteria will typically require:

  • Student enrollment in a registered, school-recognized training program.
  • The presence of an on-site instructor.
  • For construction companies to provide an approved training plan.

Over the past 40 years, the United States has experienced a shift from an industrial to a post-industrial, service-based business economy. The aftermath: fewer students pursue skilled trades, and postsecondary education enrollment has increased.

As attitudes toward pursuing trades shifted, so did federal funding. This has led to a significant funding gap between college and career technical education. This means high school students receive a wide assortment of information and opportunities for earning a four-year college degree, but not necessarily for pursuing a trade.

“Some of these kids who enjoy trades work, like carpentry or welding, want to get a college degree and have no idea that they can go to a four-year institution for construction sciences. We’re working to change that,” said Mike Gibson, the executive vice president at Associated General Contractors (AGC) of Kansas.

These shifts have placed construction employers at a disadvantage when competing for the attention of the next workforce generation. Construction businesses must be proactive about educating students in the benefits and opportunities of working in the construction industry. There are numerous ways to invest in school-to-work initiatives that help foster a desire to work in construction.

Here are five strategies construction companies can implement to bolster their recruitment strategies and better reach student populations:

Apprenticeship Programs

Young people can gain valuable hands-on learning through school-approved apprenticeship programs. Construction companies can collaborate with local schools to establish these programs, offering the resources needed to make them possible. Ideally, the program would allow students to earn school credit.

The sponsor company can align its curriculum with the essential skills required for its open roles. This grants participating students a leg up at graduation. Students acquire relevant construction skill, specifically skills that are in demand at the firm providing the mentorship.

Apprenticeship programs also offer students opportunities to connect with industry professionals who can act as mentors. Mentors provide guidance and answer questions as students near graduation, enter the workforce, and beyond. Companies can tap their skilled workers who are considering retirement to fill these instructor roles. Being a mentor allows them to continue working in less physically demanding environments while training the next generation.

Site Tours

Many people have only seen the construction industry from a distance — passing a construction site in a car. They often have a limited understanding of its possibilities, unaware of the diverse array of career paths it offers.

By inviting students to participate in job site tours, companies can shed light on the extensive opportunities within the construction field. These tours educate students, parents, and teachers on construction career paths that they may not immediately consider, such as building inspection, estimating, and project management.

Companies may consider offering additional opportunities for those who participate in site tours to help project teams with special projects. This way, students can learn about specific skills or jobs that piqued their interest in a supervised environment.

Sponsor Skills Competitions

The best way to engage young people in construction careers is to offer them opportunities to cultivate their trade skills. Apprenticeship programs are one way to do this. Extracurricular activities on the school campus are another. Companies can support students in refining their craft skills by partnering with local schools to sponsor such initiatives.

For example, Skills USA is an organization that trains students for trade, technical, and skilled service occupations. Skills USA hosts competitions at the state and national levels. Students compete in categories such as carpentry, heavy equipment operation, and welding.

Construction firms can work with local schools to make these programs available by volunteering employees who can serve as coaches or providing scholarships to students who want to participate.

Outreach Events

Sharing the opportunities available for young people in construction requires getting in front of them. School fairs and events allow students and their parents to speak directly with construction professionals, ask questions, and discover new career opportunities.

Face-to-face conversations also provide an avenue to dispel common misconceptions about the construction industry and highlight any unique opportunities they offer, such as apprenticeship programs or site visits.

In 2018, AGC of Kansas launched Build Up Kansas, an initiative dedicated to enhancing CTE and vocational programs in Kansas high schools. Build Up Kansas describes the specific career paths people can pursue and connecta them with the resources and hands-on opportunities needed to achieve their goals.

Engage Educators

Many educators are not well-versed in the construction field, either. Ensuring that teachers and guidance counselors are familiar with the opportunities available in the field is essential, as it can motivate educators to pass the information on to their students.

A successful example of this can be found in New England, where the AGC of Massachusetts has established the Building Advancement Externship. This paid externship program immerses teachers in various construction roles for a week, enabling them to gain insights into industry trends, the essential skills required for different construction careers, and the educational pathways that can guide students toward a future in the commercial construction industry.

Building the Pipeline

Economists anticipate that construction spending will continue to increase steadily in 2024. Still, it’s difficult to seize additional bid opportunities when it's an ongoing challenge to find enough qualified workers to staff those projects.

Investing in initiatives that educate and convince young people to pursue construction careers is a long-term recruitment strategy. These students may not be immediately available to fill vacant positions but engaging them with applied learning could spark a passion for trades professions that boosts workers' availability and builds a pipeline of skilled workers entering the industry in the years ahead. RB

Carrie Gardenhire is the director of association partnerships at Arcoro, a human resources management solutions provider for the construction industry. Contact her at [email protected].

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