By Philip Casto

“Do the math.” That’s the message labor unions are getting out to high schoolers and even middle schoolers, especially in metropolitan markets, as they try to rebuild their numbers to help meet the shortfall of workers that’s reaching critical proportions in industries like construction.

It’s a message with growing appeal.

The pitch: Come and see us when you graduate high school. Our paid apprenticeship program starts you at $20 an hour. By the time you’re a journeyman, you can earn upwards of $80,000 a year. By the start of your fifth year, your accumulated earnings will approach $400,000, with a full plate of health and other benefits, like a 401(k). By contrast, that’s when newly minted college graduates are looking for their first job – entry level pay of $60,000 to $70,000 – and are saddled with an average $120,000 in debt.

Today’s student loan debt burden – now at $1.53 trillion and climbing – may be the best thing to happen to the trades. And with the ongoing construction boom, which some project to grow at $100 billion annually over the next decade, the industry could be looking to fill some 700,000 jobs. Choosing a trade over college and debt can be an attractive option.

The need is driving not just the unions, but employers and policymakers to do more to make careers in construction a viable – and rewarding – pathway. Some of the developments worth noting:

  • Proposed loosening of labor laws. Minnesota is one state being pushed to change labor laws so that minors, aged 16 and older, can work in non-hazardous construction activities. The argument is that on-site exposure would encourage more careers in the trades. (That focus in Louisiana led to 23% of high schoolers earning career diplomas, versus 2% in 2013.) While there are construction jobs that don’t require power tools, that doesn’t negate other exposures to other trades’ machinery and heavy equipment – never mind the need for adequate supervision to ensure 16- and 17-year-olds don’t engage in high-risk activities.
  • Vocational solutions. A variety of public/private partnerships, such as Head Start programs, focus on creating training pathways for different population segments, usually centered in metropolitan areas. Head Start To The Construction Trades, for example, helps marginalized populations in Spokane access training and connect to jobs. In addition to its “Lemon Heads” (for the hard hats) on-site training program for youths, it’s also aggressively recruiting women – a seriously under-utilized group in construction.
  • Improved benefits. It used to be that construction workers who didn’t work didn’t get paid. But in order to better attract workers to more desirable jobs, many construction employers are not only raising pay rates, but also starting to offer the paid sick leaves and holidays that are routine in other sectors.

Such developments help to add some luster to the kinds of jobs that are necessary to keep sectors of our economy like construction moving forward. Whether we’re doing enough to address the construction labor shortage remains the issue.

Talk to HUB International today to learn more about these and other emerging trends in construction. HUB can help you leverage them to benefit your business as well as helping ensure you have the protection against the risks that arise as the industry evolves.