The Current “Labor Shortage”

It’s been all over the news lately.  Employers can’t find workers.  The theories for this current phenomenon abound.   While I may have my own theories about the labor market in general, what I really want to address is the construction market and lack of available labor we are currently seeing. 

The lack of skilled and unskilled labor in the construction trades is not a new problem, nor is it going to resolve itself quickly.  The problem has been decades in the making and you could literally see it coming for the past 20 or 30 years.  I got my first ‘real’ construction job as a laborer while I was in college at the age of 19.  Despite the superintendent’s efforts to work us hard, to convince myself and his 18 year old nephew I worked with to finish college and never enter construction as a career, I was bit by the bug.   The average worker on the site was between 30 and 35, but us young ‘kids’ were still entering the work force.  Fast forward five years.  I’m 24 working for a large home builder and while I’m considered young to be a builder, the average age of the workers building the homes was probably between 35 and 40.  Fast forward another 10 years and I’m 34 years old, with my own company and every single employee I hired up to that point had been older than me.  The average age of workers on job sites had risen to between 40 and 50.  Fast forward further to current day and I’m in my mid 40’s and it is rare to see anyone significantly younger than me on a job site.  What happened?

Sometime ago, long before I was born, society started preaching a message that working with one’s hands was somehow a bad thing and should be looked down upon.  College was praised as the way to achieve the American dream.  Getting a degree and a white collar job was supposed to mean easy money and lots of it.  The youth were told to stay away from the trades, because it was beneath them and they couldn’t make a livable wage.  This was drilled into everyone’s heads for decades.  It worked.  College became the goal.  Trading in the blue collar for a white collar was an upgrade.  Working with your hands was somehow demeaning.  Or so everyone thought.  Then a ‘funny’ thing happened.  All the labor started to go away.  No one wanted to ‘work’ anymore.

If we want to fix the labor shortage, we need to fix what society teaches about work.  Working with tools and getting dirty can be extremely rewarding.  How many people behind a desk can physically show you what they accomplished on any given day?  There is a great satisfaction that comes with being able to do so.  College is great, if it’s necessary for your career and your chosen career pays enough to recoup the cost.  However, there is also something to be said for entering a career and have the ability to be making money from day one, with the potential to make as much as any doctor or lawyer out there.  I’ve worked construction for most of my life.  While I haven’t made the big bucks yet, I have also never worked for minimum wage.  I have never paid employees anywhere close to minimum wage.  I know many people who have done quite well for themselves in the trades, and not just builders and general contractors either; plumbers, roofers, carpenters, electricians, masons, etc…Hard work combined with a little luck can pay off in a big way.  So why aren’t we teaching the next generation that they can get a job straight out of high school, making more than minimum wage and within 5 years be making enough to support a family and within 10 years be living quite comfortably while their formerly college bound friends are still paying off loans for tuition? 

As a general contractor, I’ve already noticed that more and more, quality tradesmen are starting to be able to name their price, due to the simple economics of supply and demand.   Despite the fact it means I must pay more, I don’t have a problem with this trend, as they have been undervalued and underpaid for so long.  What worries me though, is where does the next generation come from?  Especially in this industry, bodies wear out.  The physical ability to do the work disappears, despite the desire.  For millennia, the skills have been passed from one generation to the next.  For the most part, we don’t see this happening anymore.  The skilled craftsmen are aging out and their children are off to college to pursue other avenues.

We need to once again start appreciating the men and women who quite literally, build this country.  It is time to start teaching that working with one’s hands is admirable, not a shame.  The value of a knowledgeable roofer, electrician, plumber, or HVAC technician needs to be, well, valued.  Instead of complaining, we should gladly pay them for their knowledge, just like we pay accountants and doctors and lawyers for theirs.  The artisanship that goes into fine carpentry or masonry should be admired for the art that it is.  Shop classes need to be reintroduced to the schools.  As an industry, we need to start reaching out to the youth with education and training opportunities.  Trade schools and their offerings need to be expanded and presented as a real, viable path to a satisfying career.  In short, we need to change a decades old attitude and do it quickly while there are still those around to teach a new generation.  We don’t really have a labor shortage.  There are plenty of people to do the labor.  We have a lack of desire shortage and no one to blame, but ourselves.

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