Highway Construction Workforce Development Looks Promising for 2017
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 125,000 civil engineering construction jobs in the United States in 2014. Highway, street and bridge and other heavy and civil engineering construction accounted for 75,700 of those jobs.
In less than 10 years - by 2024 - BLS projects heavy and civil employment to total 149,800. That's an additional 24,800 jobs, an increase of 19.8 percent. Within that total, BLS projects that highway, street, and bridge construction will increase by 12.5 percent, to 67,100 jobs. Other heavy construction will increase by a whopping 28 percent, growing to 20,500 positions.
These are new jobs. The numbers do not reflect people needed because of retirement and other departures and turnover. USDOT estimates that more than half the current highway construction workforce is over the age of 45. Consequently, with retirement, separation and growth, more than a half-million highway construction jobs are projected over the next decade.
The big question: where will all the new construction workers come from? A lot of people in a lot of organizations are looking for the right answers and, perhaps harder still, working to turn ideas into action. Unfortunately, as most construction managers know, there are no easy answers and there is surely no magic bullet.
Connecting With the Right Audience
One effort that will stay strong in 2017 is a focus on the best ways to get construction employment messages in front of likely audiences and candidates. Construction people feel they have a pretty compelling story to tell. There are plenty of openings for unskilled workers. Skilled training is available and standing-by. Construction offers career pathways with varied assignments and high pay. Even better, a person can earn while learning, and then get a job carrying no student debt.
For educators, from middle schools to adult training and retraining programs, this emphasis on wide-open opportunity is a central message they have to keep reinforcing.
Dave Sload is Vice President of Workforce Development, Keystone Chapter, Central Pennsylvania for the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). Sload commented that right now Pennsylvania contractors "have no real good bench" regarding skilled, experienced construction workers. Sload said that employers have lost a critical message: "If you show up on time, have a good work ethic and can pass a drug test, we can get you a job." Many construction company owners "started out in a ditch," Sload commented, adding that a large percentage of construction companies are small businesses. His point: you can start at the bottom and work your way to the top.
Sload has implemented an "aggressive" outreach and marketing program in central Pennsylvania for the last two years. He started a pilot program for junior and senior high schoolers, a construction day covering topics from carpentry to heavy equipment operation. Enrollment is strong, he said, and he'd like to expand the program. In addition, he and his team work with local community colleges to attract the unemployed and under-employed. "If we can get them the basics," he comments, "we can get them hired." Right now the program is seasonal, he wants to see it offered year around.
Mike Glavin is ABC's Director of Workforce Development Policy and Programs. ABC has 800 training programs among its nationwide education centers. Glavin said ABC and its member companies will invest more than $1.1 billion in workforce training this year. He said top program concerns remain pretty standard: find the best applicants, stay committed to helping them complete their training and then start working at their trade.
Focusing on Career Technical Education Courses
The need to tell and sell construction careers is a message repeated by just about every construction trade group, union, and school and education center. In junior and senior high schools there is a lot of competition among programs for kids looking at career technical education (CTE) courses, usually linked to a set of 16 "career clusters." Architecture and construction forms one of those groupings, and a student can, indeed, find directions and advice regarding hoist and winch operators, for example, or highway maintenance workers or paving equipment operators and civil engineering technicians, to name just a few vocations within the construction cluster.
But for students - and their parents - career education pathways are competitive, construction is part of a big field comprising many choices.
Tennessee is referenced highly by CTE workforce development experts. High school seniors can apply for the Tennessee Promise scholarship, providing two years of tuition-free attendance at a community or technical college in Tennessee. Heather Justice is Executive Director for Tennessee's Office of CTE. Her team started to realign CTE programs in 2013, to establish direct program links with employment forecasts and in-demand jobs. Justice said educators want industry certifications and curricula that are recognized and valued by industry.
North Carolina, too, has made significant efforts to align CTE with real jobs, to provide the skills employers need, and enough programs to provide a sufficient workforce. Jo Anne Honeycutt, North Carolina's Director of CTE, said that CTE program enrollment is strong. North Carolina's goal is that by 2025, 67 percent of the State's CTE students would have industry credentials.
Again, these advances, though, are not just focused on highway and civil engineering workforce development. For kids in North Carolina and Tennessee, and many other states as well, those 16 career clusters present a whole world of possibilities. It will still take a strong message and focus to keep tens of thousands of students in construction career pathways.
Industry Involvement is Important
Michael Dunham is CEO of Associated General Contractors of Georgia, Inc. In a recent issue of AGC's national trade publication, Constructor Magazine, Dunham wrote a column called "One School, One Instructor, One Student, You." In it, he writes that "no one is in a better position to fix the workforce shortage issue for us, except us," referencing the need for contractors to deliberately reach out to potential workers. Dunham said this effort is just as important as more centralized programs from governments and departments of education.
CTE officials in Louisiana use employer involvement as one way to measure program success. Curt Eysink is Executive Director for Workforce Solutions for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. For Eysink, direct employer involvement, with curricula, courses and with students, indicates value for employers and value for students. LA's career education system has a specific goal regarding CTE development. In 2014, for example, the system had 19,810 "completers." By 2020, they want to double that to 40,000. Again, that's a total number; students interested in heavy construction and civil engineering employment will be a portion of that total.
Connecting With Washington
While local and grass-roots work is important so too are centralized and formal programs that commit resources and monitor outcomes.
Brian Turmail is Associated General Contractor's (AGC) Senior Executive Director, Public Affairs, based in Washington, D.C. Turmail said that AGC's policy suggestions for construction workforce development were updated in 2016, to be ready for 2017. That document - "Preparing the Next Generation Of Skilled Construction Workers: Workforce Development Plan" - presents nine proposals for consideration by elected officials and executive agencies. AGC's ideas include:
- Reforming the Carl D. Perkins Career & Technical Education Act - the primary federal funding vehicle for career and technical education programs
- Boosting Perkins funding, from $1.12 billion in 2015 back to its 2007 level of $1.3 billion
- Allowing high school students to enroll, at no cost, in public community college career and technical programs
- Encourage private funding for craft training programs
- Make training and hiring easier for veterans
- Immigration reform
In January, AGC sent its reform ideas to President Trump's election and transition teams. In its message to the new President, AGC references the high level of attention given to rebuilding the nation's transportation, water and energy systems. "This opportunity will not come without challenges," AGC cautions, including workforce challenges. However, an infrastructure program could also help rebuild the nation's construction workforce, AGC writes, noting that such a set of programs would serve as a valuable recruiting tool, a signal to students and young adults that construction is a career path worth considering.
Workforce development priorities remain an unknown as President Trump's Administration gets its programs underway. At this writing, the President's nominee for Labor Secretary is still unconfirmed. The 2018 federal budget is still to come. Federal funds are important for state-based CTE programs.
Likewise, it remains to be seen just how Congress will focus on workforce development in its 2017-2018 session. Last September, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 405-5 to pass H.R. 5587, the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act. Representatives Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and Katherine Clark (D-MA) introduced the bill. It would have reauthorized and reformed the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. It had a high-skills focus linked to in-demand jobs. The Senate, though, did not take up the bill.
After the recession of 2008 to 2010, many people worried about the significant employment downturn for construction workers. A big concern was that people would move to other employment, or retire, and not return to construction even when that sector picked up again.
Stephen Barnes, PhD is Director, Economics and Policy Research Group at Louisiana State University. He has monitored construction and employment in LA for many years. LA has had a somewhat different construction-economic experience. Major industrial construction kept employment strong and because there was so much reconstruction after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita construction labor dynamics did not mirror other parts of the country. Still, he notes that jobs and opportunity do attract people, that workers will move to and stay within employment centers given the chance to work at the right wages. In other words, market demand can still build and maintain a sufficient and well-trained labor force, including construction.
In 2017 a lot of workforce development parts are in place, ready to go. Business leaders know the value of their involvement. States have spent the last few years building strong CET programs. Trade associations are ready and waiting to advise a new Administration. Maybe a final element is needed: A major infrastructure bill, something to give long-term certainty regarding employment, salaries, benefits and even retirement.