Workforce Crisis: High Impact, Low-Cost First Step

Even three years ago, the construction industry expected to have a tough time finding workers. How do we prevent more of the same in 2022 and beyond?

This is Sam Rashkin’s fifth article in a series based on his book, “Housing 2.0: A Disruption Survival Guide.” It is intended as a roadmap for high-performance builders to become the most successful in the industry. 

In my waning days as chief architect with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Buildings Office, I was one of three staff members asked to pitch a new program idea to help resolve the construction industry’s huge workforce crisis.

For more than a decade, annual surveys by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) revealed worsening labor issues related to cost, availability, recruitment, quality, training, productivity, and waste. This includes recent survey results showing that 85 percent of builders expected cost and availability of labor to be a significant problem in 2020 (see Figure 1). During the COVID pandemic, this crisis has only gotten worse.

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To address this challenge, I chose an ultra-low-cost, high-impact communication strategy about the compelling business case for a career in the trades that could effectively leverage thousands of stakeholders with concomitant interests to get past this crisis. 

So, why did I choose to write an article about workforce for a Green Builder audience devoted to sustainable building? This is the same question I posed in my prior article about the myth that homes increase in value. The answer is that high-performance buildings cannot happen without a qualified workforce. High-performance building advocates have to be part of the process for ensuring adequate growth and training for the trades.

I saw the construction workforce challenge as primarily a communication problem. There is a Tsunami of older trades professionals retiring and a miniscule of interest to join the trades among the younger demographic. 

At the same time, there is a compelling business case to work in the trades. This includes the following career benefits:

  • Less time and cost burden for education
  • Competitive compensation
  • Greater job security
  • Great job availability

Less Time and Cost Burden for Education for Construction

There is such a shortage of construction workers that often trade jobs and apprenticeships are available with no training requirements. This means no cost or time to start a career in construction. 

In the worst case, the average time and cost for attending a trade school is six months to two years, and $30,000, compared to four years and $150,000 for a college bachelor’s degree. This means a bachelor’s degree, compared to trade school, imposes up to eight times greater time burden and seven times greater cost (see Figure 2).

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Competitive Salaries for Construction 

I researched the average annual salaries associated with key trades and more-desirable college degree programs and summarized them in Figure 3. This comparison reveals that trade careers offer highly competitive salaries. 

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Great Job Security in Construction

Jobs in the trades require hands-on work that cannot be outsourced, while jobs in the information, technology, or customer service sectors can easily be contracted out. In fact, the total contract value of the outsourcing market in the Americas between 2000 and 2019 has grown over 50 percent to $62 billion (see Figure 4). 

Thus, trade careers experience much less stress related to job security compared to many careers for college graduates.

Greater Job Availability

The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes the compound annual rate of change for a diverse array of job classifications. A recent summary shows that the number of construction jobs had the second highest rate of increase behind health care and social work (see Figure 5). 

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Of course, with the massive trade shortage, it is no surprise that jobs are plentiful in the construction industry. Looking to the future, job availability for trades will become even greater in the next 15 years: millions more tradespeople will be retiring than white collar professionals.

Workforce Communication Campaign Implementation 

These simple charts and data points tell a compelling story for young students to better inform considerations for a career in the trades: less time and cost, excellent compensation, superior job security, and plenty of jobs available. This is not a hard sell. But it is critical to tell this story simply with easy-to-understand graphics and contrast. 

0522gb_p59Thus, my simple proposal is to engage all housing industry stakeholders to start a broad education campaign targeting high schools, especially in low-income communities. The goal is to use comprehensive outreach tools (e.g., social media, Ad Council ads, websites, in-person presentations, career day participation, etc.) to share this compelling business case for joining the trades and specific steps for how to start the process. One organization (e.g., government, industry association, etc.) would need to take the lead and facilitate all the vested interest stakeholder groups to fund and execute a coordinated campaign. 

The high-performance home community would be expected to actively participate in this campaign, including adding content related to zero carbon as the homes of the future, the special career opportunities constructing them, and solutions for also transforming the aging building stock into high-performance homes. 

During my entire federal government career, I had the privilege to specialize in low-cost and high-impact programs and projects. This workforce proposal was another attempt to follow that path.

One last note. My recently published new book, “Housing 2.0: A Disruption Survival Guide,” is now in its third printing. I’m excited for high-performance housing professionals to benefit from the detailed framework for consistently optimizing the housing user experience to position themselves as leaders. We need you at the top of the housing industry. Information on how to order Housing 2.0 or attend one of our workshops is available here


This Housing 2.0 presentation is sponsored by: Mitsubishi Electric Westlake Royal Building Products, Schneider Electric  and Panasonic

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