Are Career and Technical Education Programs the Answer to Construction Workforce Shortages?

The last time the construction industry was in a growth state was 2007, when there were 170,000 construction workers in Colorado. Numbers dropped in the recession to a low of 104,000 in 2011, but have since rebounded to 175,000. Despite the 7% growth rate, general unemployment hovers around 2%, leaving the industry in a shortage.

Labor shortage issues are compounded as schools shutter their shop or vocational programs due to high cost of operation and as students who might once have gone into the trades are now lured by STEM programs instead.

As Michael Gifford, President and CEO of AGC of Colorado, explains, these trends indicate that the general population, which heavily values college degrees, does not see blue collar work as equal to having a college degree. However, many are now looking to CTE program as a potential answer to industry workforce shortages.

The Impact of Worker Shortages

The present construction workforce shortage affects the industry in several key ways:

  • Delayed project delivery
  • Productivity problems due to the need to train new hires, who lack basic construction skills
  • High overtime among existing employees, which may lead to fatigue and burnout
  • Higher wages, which inflates total job cost and makes new builds less lucrative for investors
  • Uncertainty and stress about the future

How CTE Programs Affect Workforce Shortages

CTE programs reverse the decline in high school shop programs, to the benefit of students. Through shop programs, students discover an affinity for construction and often decide on their career. These programs are a win-win, because companies can recruit talented students into their worker pipeline, while students gain valuable lifelong skills.

AGC of Colorado offered their first CTE program in 2015. At present, 500 students are enrolled across 10 high school programs and, in 2018, 50 graduating students took part in the Careers in Construction job placement program.

However, the biggest difference is in the lives of young people. As Gifford points out, young adults often take years to find their career path. By getting on track at the age of 17 or 18, high school graduates get a leg up on their career. The early start time means these graduates can possess trade knowledge or work as a foreman or supervisor by the time their peers, who chose college instead, are getting their first professional job. That may seem like a fast rise for construction workers, but consider how many older workers are hovering around retirement age. The industry needs new workers now, so there are many opportunities for career advancement.

In Colorado, AGC created a Memorandum of Understanding with each participating school that outlines the program’s purpose, scope, and challenges. The Memorandum of Understanding also provides schools with $30,000 to be used toward teacher pay and curriculum development.

A new state law, HB 15-1170, increases the performance credit for CTEs to equal those for community or four-year colleges, thus giving schools a financial incentive to market CTE to students.

There seems to be a cultural shift around the value of a college degree, perhaps driven by the student loan crisis, which keeps young workers saddled with debt and unable to invest in homes, cars, and other adult expenses. Whereas five years ago parents and school boards desired a 100% matriculation rate, now they’re acknowledging the value of trade skills. When combined with education opportunities like CTE, these attitude shifts may reverse worker shortages while helping young people connect to rewarding careers that match their interests.

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