The Skilled Trades Shortage

How did we get here?

~ 6 minute read

North America has millions of job openings at this very moment; most notably in the skilled trades. This can initially paint a picture of a growing economy where employers are hiring and jobs are abundant. However, if you dig a little deeper, the high number of job openings is actually a red flag, as it signals that businesses aren’t finding the right people to fill the jobs. Vacant jobs can end up costing companies hundreds of dollars each day in lost profits and can ultimately end up hurting economic growth.

We are now coming face to face with a skilled trade shortage, and the situation is becoming more desperate with each passing day. Job openings for plumbers, electricians, carpenters and other skilled trades continue to increase without enough skilled workers to fill them. This, in turn, impacts consumers in all areas of home services by way of cost, work quality and wait time.

Several factors have contributed to this ‘perfect storm’ we are engulfed in today.

The Recession

“The construction industry lost 1.5 million workers during the recession, and we’ve only brought back about 600,000,” says Rob Dietz, Chief Economist and Senior Vice President for Economics and Housing Policy for the National Association of Home Builders.

Numerous contractors went out of business during the recession and never came back even when the economy recovered. The trades lost a huge number of experienced workers, and apprenticeships dropped significantly as contractors had to focus on how they were going to survive.

Aging Skilled Workers

Rob Dietz goes on to say, “The median age of a construction worker right now is more than 40 years old. The long-term problem is, who’s going to be the next generation of construction workers?” By one estimate, for every skilled worker coming into the workforce, there are five who retire. Even new workers are aging, according to Bill Irwin, executive director of Carpenters International Training Fund. “Right now, the average age of a carpentry apprentice is 27,” he says. “The ideal age is 19.”

The 2015 Skills Gap Study conducted by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte tells us: “The U.S. manufacturing industry will add nearly 3.4 million jobs in the next decade to meet both future domestic and international demand. According to a recent Gallup study, the average retirement age of U.S. workforce is 64 years. Assuming that an employed person who is 64 years of age is to retire, it is likely that approximately 2.7 million jobs (22 percent of existing workforce) would be created due to the same number of workers who will retire from the manufacturing workforce between 2015 and 2025.

Moreover, as manufacturing firms expand their operations over this 10-year period, they will need an additional 700,000 workers to meet the demand. With such a huge workforce requirement, it is likely that the industry is going to face difficulties in finding the qualified talent. Manufacturing executives in our survey are worried that around 60 percent of current open positions in their businesses are unfilled due to lack of skilled workers. However, applying the 60 percent shortage to our projected 3.4 million jobs results in a skills gap number of 2 million workers over the next decade – a far more daunting issue the Industry faces.”

Many skilled trades are family based and have been in existence for many, many years. This is changing as well. “A lot of plumbing companies are second-, third- or fourth-generation,” says Brenda Dant, executive director of the Indiana Plumbing Heating Coolers Contractors Association. “Sometimes they retire and the next generation doesn’t want to get into the business, and suddenly we’re short one more company.”

Skilled Trades Avoidance

Why is this generation avoiding the skilled trades? Social pressure may be the answer. Spenser Villwock, interim CEO of Independent Electrical Contractors, a national trade association, says that the social pressure to go to college/university to the exclusion of all else is tending to discourage new workers.

“The message became that you need to have a college degree or you’re a lesser individual,” he says. “We aren’t exposing people to these opportunities, and the funding model in public schools supports college-or-bust.” Parents and guidance counselors still hold onto to the idea that anything less than a four-year degree isn’t going to get you anywhere, and that the skilled trades are for less intelligent individuals.

“Carpentry has a black eye because there’s a perception that it’s a job you get if you’ve dropped out of high school or have just been released from jail,” Villwock says. “Now, it’s becoming a field that older workers, especially those who want union benefits, are turning to, but the goal is to identify qualified workers much earlier.”

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is staggering. There are currently millions of capable people that are unemployed - and millions of good jobs that exist for anyone willing to learn a skill. However, no one is lining up to take these jobs because an entire generation of people is convinced that a whole area of important and extremely relevant vocations are not worth pursuing.

The majority of jobs currently available right now require training - not a four-year degree. These jobs also don’t come with a huge student loan (the US now holds more than 1.3 trillion dollars in student loans), and yet millions of students are continually discouraged from considering these opportunities. In fact, educational programs that specialize in the skilled trades have vanished from high school, even as those same skilled trades are now desperate for people.

Mike Rowe, host of the TV show ‘Dirty Jobs’, has been trying to shine a light on America’s widening skills gap and also wants to debunk the growing perception that “all the good jobs are gone”. “We continue to lend money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back, educating them for jobs that no longer exist. The existence of an ever-widening skills gap, now threatening to swallow us all, is nobody’s fault but our own. The skills gap is real, but it’s not a problem—it’s a symptom of what we value. And it’s completely in our ability to reverse. But we have to stop elevating one form of education over all the others, and begin treating all jobs for what they truly are—opportunities.

We at CareerExplorer would like to encourage young people to also consider the skilled trades as career options and to not ignore entire categories of good jobs, education, apprenticeships and fellowships. We understand that many people still view the skilled trades as being dirty, lower-level jobs, however the truth is that the skilled trades require a lot of creativity and technical skills.

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