Even before the economic low point of the Great Recession, during which the construction industry lost more than two million jobs, recruiting and training a skilled workforce was a major concern for contractors. In addition to valuing the construction pipeline for the next five years at more than $2.3 trillion dollars, the Construction Labor Market Analyzer predicts a deficit of more than two million skilled craft professionals. 

Oil and gas production is driving significant growth in both new and existing industrial infrastructure that, when combined with the retirement of baby boomers, is expected to create a massive shortage of skilled craft professionals. Specifically, the construction analytics provider Industrial Info Resources predicts labor demand in the Gulf Coast region could increase more than 50 percent by 2015. 

Congress has begun to take notice as construction sectors such as manufacturing and health care report labor shortages and organizations such as NCCER promote fulfilling, well-paying careers in the skilled trades. More and more policy ideas are being aimed at growing the pipeline of students taking advantage of construction training, including efforts to promote career and technical education (CTE), reform the nation’s investment in the workforce and improve access to industry-recognized credentials.

One law that has been under the microscope is the Carl D.Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which authorizes federal funding for CTE at the high school level. The Perkins Act was last re-authorized in 2006. In the 113th Congress, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate are beginning to investigate better ways to link the educational pathways of high school CTE programs with skilled labor demands.

Another piece of legislation that could be facing an overhaul is the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), passed in 1998 to promote career development and training outside the public education system. In addition to creating state and municipal Workforce Investment Boards to oversee local training needs, the WIA established a national network of “One-Stop” career centers. Despite noble intentions, the WIA created a system tangled with overlapping programs and bureaucratic inefficiency.  Now, Congress is taking steps to reform the nation’s workforce system and create an environment that better aligns job-seekers with in-demand careers.

One of the most recent attempts at reforming workforce development policy was the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills (SKILLS) Act (H.R. 803), introduced by House Republicans in 2013. Supported by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), the SKILLS Act would consolidate more than 30 different programs that are either ineffective or duplicative—increasing flexibility for employers as well as workers. In addition to cutting red tape, the SKILLS Act would reform the way Workforce Investment Boards are populated by requiring two-thirds of board members to be employers. 

The SKILLS Act passed the House along partisan lines and will need to be reconciled with the Senate’s proposed language to reauthorize the WIA. Unfortunately, the Senate version of the WIA maintains the status quo of inefficiency rather than making significant systematic changes. Additionally, the Senate WIA bill fails to fix discriminatory language that requires an employer to partner with a union training provider in order to access grants for green jobs training. (The House-passed SKILLS Act repeals this language.)

These aren’t the only efforts of lawmakers to help students defray the costs of post-secondary career training. A variety of proposals, including giving states authority to accredit career training programs (such as apprenticeship programs) and extending Pell Grant eligibility to students enrolled in shorter-term training, have been introduced.

During a September 2013 House subcommittee hearing on CTE, ABC Pelican Chapter President Alvin Bargas spoke about the chapter’s partnership agreements with 43 Louisiana high schools. By incentivizing partnerships like these and breaking down barriers between education and industry, students who are focused on the construction industry can have better access to a sustainable career.

With the elections coming up in November, legislators are clearly looking at ways to make it easier for Americans to access careers in high-demand industries. High-paying jobs exist in construction; the challenge is training the workforce to fill them.

Mike Glavin is senior manager of workforce policy for Associated Builders and Contractors. For more information, email glavin@abc.org, visit www.workforceunderconstruction.com or follow @WF_Construction