Shortage of Skilled Workers Creating A Crisis in Construction Industry

By Patrick Lantrip

With only one skilled tradesman entering the workforce for every five who retire, the demand for skilled labor in the U.S. has reached a critical mass.

That, in turn, can have negative impacts on economic development by causing construction delays and inflating budgets to accommodate out-of-town workers.

A shortage of skilled trade workers is being felt across the construction industry. Go Build Tennessee, a program Gov. Bill Haslam launched last year, aims to attract new workers.

(Tony Oquias)

“The economy has gotten stronger, the demand for construction and new building has expanded significantly and it doesn’t show any signs of declining,” said Bob Pitts, senior policy adviser for the Associated Builders and Contractors Greater Tennessee Chapter. “It’s going to take additional people that the industry does not have to meet the demands of the next couple of decades.”

Pitts said the tremendous demand does not create a good situation for the foreseeable future.

For example, he said the effects are even being felt in booming urban centers like Nashville where companies have to carefully manage how much work they take on because of the lack of skilled manpower.

“After the Great Recession, one would have to admit there were some people who left our industry looking for jobs in other places,” Pitts said. “However, there would still have been a need for people over and beyond that.”

Pitts said one of the biggest contributing factors was the preconceived stereotypes surrounding construction workers. However, he added that once they’re trained, many skilled trade workers can make comparable money to graduates from traditional colleges and universities, but at a fraction of the cost.

“You got to have the skill-level craft workers to keep up, maintain and build our society as it becomes more complex and more sophisticated,” he added. “We have to have adequate manpower in order for our businesses to grow and flourish.”

In Memphis, Bob Holland, a field representative for construction labor support company Tradesmen International, said he sees the effects of the shortage firsthand and agrees that misconceptions are partially to blame for it.

“There’s a false notion that the trades are monopolized by low-wage labor,” he said. “But these are extremely intelligent people who have a really firm hold on math and in most cases are bilingual.”

Holland added that there just hasn’t been much of a push to get into the trades.

“People who have a trade or skill are seen as not the same as someone who has a degree, but the pay is actually comparable,” he said.

In order to help curb these preconceptions, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam launched a program called Go Build Tennessee last May in an effort to attract new workers by enhancing the image of the construction industry and educating students.

“Tennessee is often ranked among the best for economic development and business climate. To remain competitive we need to prepare our citizens to meet workforce demands, including the demands in the construction industry,” Haslam said at the program’s launch. “Go Build Tennessee will encourage young people to consider careers in the skilled trades and inform the next generation of workers about career opportunities and training programs available to them.”

Since the original Go Build program began in Alabama in 2010, similar programs have spread to several other states – all with the same mission of recruiting and educating new skilled workers in construction trades.

“It’s going to take time,” Pitts said of the program. “It’s not something that turns around overnight, but we can see that it is beginning to have an impact.”