Building a Workforce: Construction Industry Confronts Labor Shortage

“Consider the reality of today’s job market. We have a massive skills gap. Even with record unemployment, millions of skilled jobs are unfilled because no one is trained or willing to do them. Meanwhile unemployment among college graduates is at an all-time high, and the majority of those graduates with jobs are not even working in their field of study. Plus, they owe a trillion dollars in student loans. A trillion! And still, we push a four-year college degree as the best way for the most people to find a successful career?” - Mike Rowe, Host of TLC’s “Dirty Jobs” and founder of mikeroweWORKS, a PR campaign designed to reinvigorate the skilled trades.

While Hamilton County has, for the most part, recovered from the housing crisis of 2008, one industry continues to feel the impact of it every day: the construction industry.

When the crisis cloud began to lift, and consumers began to buy homes again, one thing became very clear: the workforce that had once carried rebar and poured foundations was significantly reduced in size. “Those construction workers who were mid- or end-career range either retired or found a new job and did not return,” said Don Chesney, vice president of operations for Arbor Homes. “And the younger generation isn’t showing up asking for a job.”

In a county known for its new construction and constant growth, that is a significant issue. Nationally, 80 percent of construction businesses report having issues filling skilled labor positions, and Hamilton County reflects that trend. As a matter of fact, it may be more deeply felt in this county of high affluence coupled with schools that prepare students for four-year college programs and white-collar jobs.

 “We definitely feel it with our trade partners,” said Nigel Hoss of Hoss Homes. “There are not enough workers to complete the homes we can sell. We constantly fight to be efficient. We are limited to taking on the work we can handle. ”

Dispelling Myths

These frustrations with a lagging workforce are a common theme of discussion in the industry, from national trade publications to gatherings of Central Indiana builders. “We began to see a systemic problem, and one that wasn’t just going away on its own,” said Jason Ells, senior vice president of sales and business development and a board member for the Builders Association of Greater Indianapolis (BAGI). “Clarity comes from action.”

And so began BAGI’s quest to find a solution to the issue. “We thought this was a very valuable and necessary initiative for our members to pursue,” said Steve Lains, BAGI’s CEO. “Anytime our membership is experiencing an issue that impacts its ability to meet the demand for new construction, we are going to do everything in our power to find a solution.”

“We began talking with schools and colleges about our shortage of workers,” said Ells. “We wanted to work with them in attracting students to explore the skilled trades as a career option.”

That meant dispelling some myths commonly associated with construction work. “It’s no longer a ‘hammers and whistle at girls’ job,” said Chesney. “There are many facets of construction today – from planning and design to structural engineers and electricians.”

While many schools were receptive to the concept, Ells said they found a significant partner with Westfield Washington Schools. “They weren’t just interested, but willing to put energy behind the initiative. They saw the value in it, not just for their current students, but also for college graduates who weren’t finding jobs,” said Ells.

Seeking Talent

The result of those discussions that began a year ago is BAGI’s recently introduced initiative, “From the Ground Up: Building a Better Future.” The program aggressively addresses the myths and facts of skilled trades, according to Stephanie Vondersaar, a counselor at Westfield High School who participated in the collaborative effort.

“There has been a great misunderstanding about the building trades,” she said. “We see a number of students who haven’t identified a career beyond attending college for four years. This initiative is about educating them beyond the college experience.”

That education began when “From the Ground Up” was unveiled at a Westfield High School career fair in September. In a school of 2,200 students, that sort of audience carries significant impact. Collateral educational materials about the homebuilding industry offer a chronological look at home building through planning, construction and finishing.

In addition, it offers some tantalizing factoids, including:

  • The average starting salary in skilled trades is $48,110 (compared to education at $33,800 and business at $41,200)
  • A fireplace specialist needs only a high school diploma or GED, yet starting salary is around $50,000 annually.
  • A drywall contractor (with a high school diploma or GED and apprenticeship) can make up to $120,000 annually.
  • 80% of new skilled-trade jobs require less than a year of schooling

A graph of homebuilding career paths showing how a high school student can effectively move to senior management over the course of time

Ells is hopeful that BAGI’s “From the Ground Up” initiative will change the tide to re-direct young talent to Central Indiana’s building trades. Throughout the course of the next several months, Ells and his fellow BAGI members will be in attendance at area school career fairs, spreading the word to youngsters that there are lucrative careers that they may not have considered. (The next career fair is set for December 8 at Sheridan High School. Hosted by the Sheridan Youth Assistance Program, the fair will welcome more than 500 students from Sheridan, Hamilton Heights, Tipton, and Clinton Central.)

Said Ells, “I strongly believe that attending a four-year college isn’t the only path to success for our young adults. A career in a skilled trade can be just as rewarding in terms of personal happiness and financial reward, but who’s sharing that fact with our middle school and high school students these days? While Mike Rowe is doing a stand-up job, more of us could be spreading the word and opening eyes to the fact that there are more opportunities out there than four-plus years of college debt and a desk job.”