Mark Schwartz is the Chief Digital Officer at Trimble, responsible for transforming the company’s systems, processes and infrastructure.
Although many sectors have been hard-hit by the current lack of workers, the construction industry is facing a shortage first brought on by the loss of 600,000 skilled workers during the 2008 recession. That exodus has been exacerbated over the past 13 years by factors including retiring Baby Boomers and Covid-19, with the construction industry leading the positivity rates for asymptomatic cases out of all occupations.
Adding to the current situation, the future will likely bring even more pressure on construction output. Although the bipartisan infrastructure deal is still being negotiated, other existing federal and state programs are already adding new demand for workers across the country. The construction industry is facing an uphill battle when it comes to work in the pipeline and workers to complete those projects.
However, although the statistics are dire, the future isn’t. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the proverb goes, and we don’t need to look very far to find colleges and universities, businesses, industry associations and individuals bringing innovative new programs to light to help attract, train and retain construction industry workers.
New Degrees Of Interest
It’s estimated that “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.” Careers in building information modeling (BIM) and virtual design and construction (VDC) are among the up-and-coming career options that are attracting the attention of both large and small educational institutions like Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and Georgia Highlands College in Rome, Georgia. Starting in spring 2022, Georgia Highlands will join Purdue as one of the few schools in the country to offer degree programs in BIM and VDC. Both programs offer classes on a wide range of construction-related topics and teach students how to construct projects digitally using 3D modeling technologies, which is highly anticipated to be the way of the future.
Located in Vancouver, Canada, Vancouver Community College is another educational institution leading the way when it comes to helping jump-start careers in construction — and in steel detailing, in particular. Although the school’s construction modeling program was first introduced in the 1940s, the school is planning to add staff next year to accommodate demand from students as far away as Hong Kong who are taking its classes remotely.
Collaboration between higher education institutions and businesses worldwide is further helping drive opportunities for hands-on learning through the development of curriculum, technology labs and access to internships and mentors. Partnerships like these play a critical role in attracting young people to the construction industry and providing the skills they need to succeed.
Apprenticeships have always been part of the pathway to a career in construction, particularly in specialty sectors like those that are mechanical or electrical in nature, as well as plumbing, and these hands-on programs are growing in popularity. According to findings from the U.S. Department of Labor, apprenticeships grew 70% between 2011 and fiscal year 2020. Even with the Covid-19-related 12% decline in the number of new apprenticeships in 2020 compared to 2019, 2020 was still the third-highest year in history for the Department of Labor’s Registered Apprenticeship program.
Although apprenticeships are on the rise in the U.S., American companies might benefit from looking at the European model for apprentice programs, which, according to Lutger Deitmer, senior research fellow and lecturer at the University of Bremen in Germany, are “not specifically just about learning a trade. It’s about becoming well-rounded and learning lots of different things while learning a trade.”
European apprenticeship programs are generally more robust than U.S. programs and can include integration into a country’s overall education system, both classroom learning and on-the-job training, support from union and institutional stakeholders and more widespread availability and adoption. According to Deitmer, 60% to 70% of German engineers working today have an apprenticeship background.
Returnships Bring Workers Back
We’re all aware of the role internships play in helping young workers gain valuable real-world experience as they launch their careers. The relatively new and much lesser-known concept of “returnships” is an innovative take on traditional internships that’s designed to help those who’ve been out of the workforce for a few years make their return.
Adopted by companies like Amazon, Comcast, Dell and Microsoft, returnship programs can vary substantially but are typically paid programs that last from a few weeks to a few months, with the goal of easing re-entry to the workforce for people with highly sought-after skills who’ve taken a career break for an extended period of time. In general, the goal is to acclimate the worker to his or her potential new workplace, provide a refresher on the latest skills needed for the job, provide a support system and transition the participant into a full-time position at the end of the program. Programs like this that are specifically designed to increase workplace diversity and welcome otherwise untapped pools of talent can go a long way toward easing the labor shortage, both in construction and elsewhere.
The Road Ahead
Although the construction industry has faced a shortage of workers for some time, education, businesses and industry associations are coming together to offer up truly innovative programs to grow the workforce just as America needs it most. New degrees, apprenticeships and returnships offer opportunities for new and existing employees to gain valuable skills to enter or return to the workforce, which could be mirrored and executed by other industries in need. Together, these opportunities could inject the necessary skilled labor into our country to help it grow and prosper for years to come.