Georgia Construction Leaders Tackle the Skilled Trade Shortage

by: Smith and Howard

August 23, 2017

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Georgia’s students are in back-to-school mode this month, and construction industry leaders are hopeful skilled trades will be getting more attention – and increased classroom enrollment.

In a recent Smith and Howard survey of Georgia real estate and construction professionals, a standout concern of those surveyed was the lack of skilled labor available to respond to an increased growth rate. 63% of surveyed respondents indicated the lack of skilled labor kept them from bidding on projects during the past year, and said the shortage is the primary issue impacting construction businesses in 2017. At a special event launching the survey results, a panel comprised of industry leaders shared insights into the problem and discussed a number of solutions being used to address it.

Tens of Thousands of Vacancies 

The current workforce is “aging out,” and for every 4.5 leaving the construction workforce, only one is coming in. “We don’t have a pipeline, so there’s a lack of supply” said Scott Shelar, President and CEO of the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA). The CEFGA website states current employed craft labor in Georgia is 180,600, with a projected demand through 2019 at 231,026. That’s a shortage of over 61,000 workers.

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics says we need 15,000 new workers a year and the Construction Market Labor Analyzer says we need 30,000, so somewhere between 15 and 30,000 per year for the next three years,” said Shelar. “Estimate 50% of that is in metro Atlanta.”

While the survey focused on Georgia, this is a national issue. One construction firm chooses not to take on projects in certain states because it is simply too difficult to find skilled workers.

In the construction industry, skilled labor specifically refers to labor that requires workers who have specialized training or a learned skill-set to perform the work. These workers can have varied levels of training or education, and in many cases have received enough training to become licensed or certified in a particular trade. Examples include industrial electricians, heavy equipment operators, concrete finishers and commercial plumbers.

In decades past, high school classes were offered that introduced students to these fields of work. In recent years, schools’ priorities shifted to a focus on college readiness and success on standardized tests, with vocational programs taking a backseat. Likewise, post-secondary vocational-technical schools began falling from favor. These factors helped create a perfect storm that would ultimately impact construction readiness.

Two-Pronged Approach Gains Traction

Shelar explained that nonprofit CEFGA is using short and long-term solutions to groom skilled labor. The organization connects hundreds of construction companies, trade associations and its partner, Associated General Contractors (AGC) Georgia, with more than 70 accredited training and education facilities throughout the state.

“Short term, our Construction Ready Program gets under- and unemployed people trained very quickly,” Shelar said. “It’s a four week boot camp program that started on the west side, in a program called Westside Works. In the last three years we’ve placed 160 people to work on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium alone.”

The organization’s long term approach is to get into middle and high schools to share information and inspiration about opportunities in the construction industry. CEFGA is the largest National Center for Construction Education and Research accredited training organization in the state. Through CEFGA’s K12 Pipeline program, CEFGA and the Georgia Department of Education provide support and services that elevate and expand skilled trade programs in public school systems across Georgia. More than 7,000 high school students receive training each year.

Getting in the Trenches

Jenny Horton, of Collins and Arnold Construction Co., said her company has been involved with high schools in Gwinnett and North Fulton Counties for more than two years.

“There are very few things I’ve done from a community perspective more rewarding than this,” she said. “Instructors desperately need the help of our industry. Someone has to point these students in the right direction and most counselors don’t know how. It takes industry ownership to help students.”

Mike Dunham, Chief Executive Officer, Associated General Contractors of Georgia, agreed it’s the responsibility of industry members to get involved in their own back yards.

“My challenge to contractors is get out from behind your desk,” Dunham said. “Go shake hands with instructors. Get to know the schools in your community and help in the classes, in any way you can.”

That help can be as simple as providing materials for the classroom, Dunham said. Horton recommended reaching out to sub-contractors who could donate supplies. Involvement can take other forms as well, she said, praising two of her colleagues who are currently serving on certification committees and others working with high school program directors to ensure the “right stuff” is being taught. In addition, Horton endorses making it easier for volunteers to get involved.

“Work with the schools that are close to your people,” she said. “For my supervisors involved in high schools, last year I gave them a stipend. Remember, it’s extra work for them,” she said.

Start ’em (very) Early!

While middle, high and post-secondary technical schools are an important focus, CEFGA encourages the involvement of younger future workers as well. One program that inspires children and their parents is The Home Depot’s Kids Workshops. Held monthly at most of The Home Depot stores, the free program is open to five to 12 year olds, who learn to build simple projects, such as picture frames, planters, toy fire trucks, and more. A new school initiative in Fulton County is the Jr. Hornet Young Apprentice Program at Mimosa Elementary School. Fourth and fifth graders have the opportunity to learn to use tools such as hammers, jigs and squares with different kinds of woods and materials. Along with the bird houses and tool boxes they assemble, teachers say the kids learn life skills that can help them rise above the competition in future years. The Jr. Hornet program feeds into one of CEFGA’s middle school programs and later into Roswell High School’s construction program. Opportunities to expand the model are currently being explored.

The Smith and Howard panelists agreed that the key to change is exposure.

“Get in front of everyone,” urged Dunham. “In the office, in government. The governor, lieutenant governor, tech, education. Everyone has influence on the budgets. Explain how careers in technical education need more money!”

That investment can produce handsome rewards, according to the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). Statistics compiled by ACTE show career technical education boosts employability, with students demonstrating strong time management, communication and critical-thinking skills. Notably, 27% of people with less than an associate degree, including licenses and certificates, earn more than the average bachelor’s degree recipient.

Federal Boost for Job Training

The need for a renewed focus on the skilled trade gap has made its way to the top tiers of government. In June, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that supports expanding apprenticeships and improving job-training programs. The directive creates a task force to recommend ways to promote apprenticeships, and allows companies, trade associations, and unions to develop their own industry-recognized guidelines. The order also requires all federal agencies to review and evaluate the effectiveness of their job training programs.

While it’s too early to gauge how successful these efforts will be, local inspiration for job seekers is on display annually at CEFGA’s Career Expo, which consists of hands- on displays that allow students to engage with industry professionals, equipment and materials in order to tap into their unique skills and interests. The event features the SkillsUSA State Championships, a competition that invites students to test their skills in a number of construction-related disciplines. These events have become increasingly successful, drawing a record 7,544 attendees in 2017.

The shortage of skilled labor is having a marked effect on construction and real estate in Atlanta today. Yet, leaders of those industries clearly have a bead on solutions and their proactive strategies are being noticed elsewhere.

“We’re getting calls from other states,” said Shelar. “They’re interested in replicating our programs.”

“There’s opportunity here for young people,” said Horton, “and the work is extremely rewarding.”

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