Like many industries that rely on a skilled workforce, construction is facing a slow-motion crisis as baby boomers continue to retire. According to the economic modeling firm EMSI, 53 percent of employees in the skilled trades are at least 45 years old, and it’s not clear who’s going to replace them on the jobsite.

In the past, the construction industry had a solid connection to students through career and technical education (CTE) programs—working with construction and related programs to introduce young people to the field and recruit talented students for craft training and apprenticeship opportunities. But as the “college for all” mentality has taken hold, students have been taking fewer construction-related CTE classes, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis.

Of course, there are some bright spots, such as career academies focused specifically on the construction trades, various high-quality construction-related instructional resources and company-sponsored training efforts. But the question remains: How can industry members introduce a new generation to the field of construction?

Building a More Complete Pipeline
A comprehensive pipeline must accommodate multiple stages as it guides prospective employees into the workforce. Until recently, schools helped students progress through the early stages of the pipeline by offering a core set of skills and knowledge, as well as paving the way for those wanting to pursue additional skills and industry connections. The industry played its role by supporting those programs and actively helping the most interested students through its craft training and apprenticeship models.

However, schools today are less able to manage those early steps. Both coursework and career counseling support are in short supply in many markets. To ensure a strong workforce pipeline, the industry should expand from its historical focus on end-stage support such as craft training and apprenticeships, and pursue partnership models that would allow more students to become aware of, and explore opportunities in, the construction trades. 

First-Stage Pipeline Support
One of the first issues to be addressed is awareness. If students are never given information on the construction trades, how can they explore them as a career option?

The industry can take advantage of several opportunities here. If schools are holding career fairs or hosting career exploration programs, local companies should ensure that construction is represented. (Note: This includes exploration activities at the middle school level, not just high school.) Firms also can provide financial and resource support for career exploration initiatives such as handouts for students and industry-related classroom materials. And, they can encourage employees (especially parents) to participate in guest speaking programs. Outstanding resources on developing career paths and shifting the public’s perception about the construction industry are available from NCCER and Build Your Future (www.byf.org).

Additionally, some business and economic development organizations have successfully boosted their presence through  innovative approaches to outreach. In Door County, Wis., the local economic development corporation (EDC) created a series of online videos featuring the employees of local manufacturers talking about their jobs. Because the local superintendent was on the EDC board, he was able to make sure that every single student in his schools (not just the CTE students) received these videos through the internal email system. Businesses participating in this program report a marked increase in awareness and interest on the part of young people entering the workforce.

Middle-Stage Pipeline Support
Once students start to actively explore their options, construction companies should consider ways of getting more involved in CTE and career pathways efforts at their local schools. In addition to supporting programs related specifically to the construction trades, they should be accessible to students interested in other areas. It’s important to remember that the construction field involves more than working on a jobsite; salespeople, accountants, attorneys and many other professionals make it possible for a company to function. With that in mind, construction firms should provide opportunities to students in many fields of study, serving as mentors and offering job shadowing opportunities and internships as often as possible. Students who intern in a company’s finance department will still receive exposure to the industry and learn how it works.

Construction firms also would benefit by looking beyond the students and reaching out directly to teachers and administrators. Many successful teacher externship programs, both for CTE and general education, help instructors learn about a field firsthand and carry that information back into the classroom—reaching hundreds of students over time. Executives also may serve as a business mentor for administrators or serve on a school-wide advisory board, sharing their management expertise while building relationships that could pave the way for additional partnerships down the road.

Industry-recognized training programs such as NCCER and government-registered apprenticeships are a powerful workforce development strategy that should continue to be encouraged. But, to build a strong workforce pipeline from start to finish, gains must be made by focusing on the earlier stages of career development. By exploring a range of different partnership models, industry leaders have a tremendous opportunity to maximize their impact and begin to address the workforce issues they are facing.


Brett Pawlowski is executive vice president of the National Center for College and Career Transitions. For more information, email brett@nc3t.com.