You can’t make a career out of holding a garden shovel in one hand and a plastic bag in the other.
Credit me for trying to instill the value of hard work into my kids’, well, values. Picking up after our dogs is a constant battle with the three of them, and the number of land mines in the plastic white bag always seem to come up short. I have to scour the area, always pointing out the “impossible-to-see” targets. No, it’s not a career, but it’s hard work.
The shortage of skilled workers in the road and bridge industry is nothing new. In fact, the plea is flat-out getting old. However, it continues to be the most important issue in the construction/preservation sector. I attended the ARRA-AEMA-ISSA Annual Meeting in mid-February, and the most concerning subject addressed by a panel of industry experts was replacing a retiring workforce.
“You don’t find a lot of millennials, which is the largest percentage in the workforce right now,” said Doug Ford, president of Pavement Coatings and a past president of the International Slurry Surfacing Association (ISSA). “That is bad news for us because in 10 years what are we going to do? They [millennials] have to become the leaders. We need to engage with these people.”
Every segment of the marketplace is facing the same problem, and a strong economy is not helping matters. Everybody is hiring in just about every field, and I bet if you give a millennial a choice between operating a milling machine in the middle of July or grinding away in an air-conditioned Apple store the response would be quick and firm.
The younger generation does not know how rewarding the road and bridge industry can be. There simply is no app for that. What can be done? The Florida DOT is currently engaged in this battle. For its Gateway Expressway project, the agency leaned on the Gateway Expressway Workforce Development Program, which was launched in 2018 after seeing a need for more construction workers to complete massive projects around Tampa Bay. The second class of 14 completed training and started work on the project Feb. 18. The want ad does not discriminate, unless you are a 5th grader or losing a battle to a demon or two. You must be 18 years old, must be able to lift 50 lb and no experience is necessary. Starting pay is $14.50 an hour pending a drug test.
“This helps people who may not have seen a career, who may not have seen an opportunity,” said Ed McKinney, FDOT District 7 planning and environmental administrator.
The minimum wage in the state of Florida is $8.46 an hour, so offering almost twice as much to work on the jobsite is certainly a great way to draw in prospects. What does the Florida DOT have to lose? A few hours in the classroom? This is exactly the kind of education environment the road and bridge industry has been trying to equip with a hunting net. Capturing 20 at a time and showing them all the careers out on a road or bridge project is the most effective recruiting tool.
More DOTs, and even contractors, need to follow Florida’s lead here. The industry is already sitting in crisis mode when it comes to recruiting younger workers, and if something does not change soon, somebody is going to be left holding the bag.