Labor Shortage: Developing a New Workforce

Remodelers need to reconsider traditional sources of skilled workers and embrace local initiatives to solve labor shortages.

by Kyle Clapham
Mosby Building Arts, Tradeswork, labor shortage

Scott Mosby first recognized a labor shortage in 2006, as spending for residential remodeling and repair climbed toward its peak of nearly $285 billion before the Great Recession. About 2 million workers left residential construction in wake of the downturn, which has restrained the ability to grow his business with the industry expected to top $300 billion in spending for 2016.

“Our company is limited by our people,” says Mosby, president of Mosby Building Arts, a full-service remodeler in St. Louis, Missouri. “If there’s a shrinking labor pool, then that becomes a much higher priority for us as a company.”

Mosby, who employs more than 100 people, discussed potential solutions until November 2015, when company president Mark McClanahan suggested they undertake an initiative to encourage a career in the trades. In early 2016, Mosby Building Arts formally launched Tradeswork, which offers people an opportunity to participate in an intensive year-long, on-the-job training program.

“The conclusion we came to is that nobody’s going to do this for us,” says Mosby, who surveyed local trade schools and high schools before embarking on his own venture. “With budgets, taxes, politics and all, the federal government just isn’t local enough to be able to effect a real change.”

Taking action

Mosby geared Tradeswork toward young people between the ages of 18 and 25 because he wants to develop candidates who have a passion for construction. The program received 20 applications in its first year, and the company selected two apprentices to work alongside its contractors in the field. The trainees earn the state’s minimum wage during the program but, upon completion, they secure a $1,000 award and the chance to be hired for a full-time position at Mosby Building Arts.

About 85 percent of the students who complete a training program through HBI will be placed in jobs within the industry, says John Courson, president and CEO.

HBI

“It’s a merit-based industry—if you’re good, you advance. Your pay increases according to your skills,” says Mosby, who praised the attitude and ethic of the two current participants. “They’ve got to get enough respect that the skilled, experienced craftsmen around them invest in them and teach them.”

The company will begin accepting applications for the second round of the Tradeswork program on Jan. 1, 2017, and candidate interviews will commence in February. Depending on the pool of applicants, Mosby Building Arts will choose up to five new apprentices who can pursue careers in the trades as carpenters, electricians, laborers, painters, plumbers, roofers and remodelers.

“It’s a big investment on our part. This is definitely a cost center—not a profit center—for us,” Mosby says. “For a smaller company that can’t afford to do what we’re doing, it’s tougher for them to hire and train.”

Mosby has tried to partner with other remodeling companies on Tradeswork from the beginning, but many of them do not employ workers in the field; therefore, they see the labor shortage more as an issue for their subcontractors. Once remodelers start delaying projects or turning away jobs altogether because subcontractors cannot complete work on time, however, they tend to reassess.

“All of the sudden, when it starts to affect their bottom line, you can imagine that their interest level increases exponentially,” says John Courson, president and CEO of HBI, formerly known as Home Builders Institute. Courson has seen a dramatic jump in the number of contractors and companies inquiring about HBI training programs, which have been around for nearly 50 years.

HBI

HBI

HBI—the educational arm of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB)—works with the Department of Labor’s Job Corps program to provide training and placement in the trades for youth ages 16 to 24. The national nonprofit also offers its services to current and ex-offenders as well as veterans and other military personnel. “Over the last six or seven months, on average, there have been 200,000 unfilled jobs in the residential construction industry,” Courson says.

Many remodelers have been feeling that pressure as home improvement expenditures are predicted to reach new heights in 2017. “Our trades are so thin that we’re hitting capacity issues,” says William Owens, a former HBI board chairman and the president of Owens Construction in Powell, Ohio. “Even if we wanted to get more work done, we probably couldn’t get more work done in the short term.”

Engaging community

Trade associations serve as the primary vehicle to collect and distribute information about labor needs and training programs among remodelers throughout the country. But some markets have more success than others in building relationships with a variety of local groups to cultivate new sources of construction workers and effectively mobilize people to address an outstanding issue.

“How do we get that information to other chapters across the country so that they can tap into the same types of resources and build programs on a local level?” asks Dolores Davis, chairperson of the Workforce Development Taskforce for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) in 2015 and the general manager of CG&S Design-Build, a remodeler based in Austin, Texas.

“[It takes] time, effort and money to get the information to the people who need it,” says Davis, who currently chairs the NARI Education Committee. The council intends to establish a database of training programs and other workforce development guidelines for association members, so they can access proven pipelines for new labor and collaborate with each other to fill open positions on their staffs.

Oregon Tradeswomen, labor shortage

Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc.

Most contractors and companies, however, require constant prodding to fill out and submit any information they might have on useful training programs. Davis advises remodelers looking for skilled workers to become more familiar with the trade schools in their local areas. “Volunteer your time and get to know the staff there; that way, you have a direct [connection],” she says.

Jennifer Johnson founded the Construction Trade School to be an educational hub for the industry and adopted a national approach mainly for outreach efforts. The nonprofit organization moved up its pilot program, a foreman training course, from April to February 2017 because of demand from local contractors in Dallas, Texas, to prepare employees so they can take on additional jobs.

“We knew from doing all the research and data collection that every single time somebody put up just a tiny school in one location, its effect was very limited,” says Johnson, who has already received calls from places such as Houston, Chicago and New York City. “It was only producing a handful of students; it didn’t get a lot of notoriety; [and] there wasn’t a lot of backing behind it.”

After wrapping up its six-month pilot program, the school will launch courses in carpentry and audio visual technology through a partnership with the Dallas Independent School District and Frazier House, a local nonprofit group. By 2018, Johnson hopes to institute Construction Trade School in several cities that can graduate 250 students every year through a repeatable process.

“We’re keeping the school compact; we’re not going out and doing 60,000 square-foot facilities with a massive overhead,” Johnson says. “We didn’t find that it was very useful for taxpayers’ money. We found that if we could keep things compartmentalized we could keep our budget in check and really start to put the money toward the students and the product.”

Changing perception

Oregon Tradeswomen, labor shortage

Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc.

Amy James Neel spent more than 20 years in the field as a carpenter and a builder, but she did not see many other women on the jobsite. Now an instructor for Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Portland that educates and trains women interested in a trades career, she promotes success for an underserved segment of people through leadership and mentorship.

“If I had met a [female] carpenter when I was in high school [or] I had seen images of women doing this work, my whole life path would’ve been different,” says James Neel, who pursued a career in the construction industry in her late 20s. “We have absolutely no shortage of people applying to our program; we see more women coming in our door than we can actually serve.”

Some contractors approach Oregon Tradeswomen because they desperately need employees or they must fulfill a diversity quota among their workforce, she says. Once contractors observe a woman bring initiative and perform effectively on the job, however, they begin reaching out to the program every graduation to handpick students who have earned appropriate qualifications.

“You have to make room for women. If a woman pulls up your ad or pulls up your website and sees a bunch of guys working, the not-so-subtle message is that she doesn’t belong there,” says James Neel, who had to prove herself on every jobsite and advance through the industry despite frequent barriers and resistance. “If [contractors] want diversity, they have to make room for it.”

The perception of construction labor as an undesirable profession also needs to change if people expect to alleviate an aging workforce anytime soon. Schools and families must acknowledge a stigma of the trades and understand the long-term career opportunities within construction, says Michael Smith, co-founder and executive director of Colorado Construction Institute in Denver.

Colorado Construction Institute, labor shortage

Colorado Construction Institute

“We have to take away the old stereotype of what a craftsperson is,” explains Smith, who started the nonprofit training organization in 2012 to help people learn the hard and soft skills necessary for employment in the field. “We have to recognize our industry is changing, our community is changing, and it’s not a job for just a burly guy who’s got a pickup truck and some tools.”

Contractors became accustomed to networking through their trades when they sought additional workers, but many people today lack the malleable skills for construction. Employers ought to think differently about developing their skilled labor and focus on giving their support to trade schools and other training programs that high schools around the country have increasingly discontinued.

“We want people to understand that our job is not just an archaic job of the past. It is a job of the future, and one that can’t be outsourced,” says Smith, who emphasizes the role technology plays in construction to change the mindset of students questioning the stability of a career in building and remodeling. “Free trade or not, we’re not building a house overseas and shipping it here.”

Generating interest

Remodeling work requires comprehensive knowledge about an array of trades and the ability to perform multiple construction tasks on any given day. Contractors who cooperate with training programs regularly and lend their technical assistance to apprentices provide valuable guidance for individuals seeking to improve their lives and relieve the stress on employers within the industry.

Colorado Construction Institute, labor shortage

Colorado Construction Institute

“I want these students to be exposed to local remodeling companies [in which] a guy pulls up in a nice, new truck, has tools, works for himself and is proud of the work that he does,” Smith says. “You’ve got to get involved. We can’t sit back and say our public school system is failing us, or our workforce is failing us … get involved [locally] and help shape the workforce of tomorrow.”

The Great Recession exacerbated the propensity for graduates of a four-year college to discover limited—or even nonexistent—job opportunities. Parents also realized the pitfalls of channeling their children into an academic degree program at the expense of other viable options that could offer immediate employment and reduce the likelihood of shouldering tremendous student debt.

“They had students just coming out of a four-year degree program, and [the graduates] couldn’t find a job anywhere—they were underemployed or living back at home,” says Zach Fields, the director of school relations for the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia, a nonprofit organization that affords construction training and placement services to people within the state.

Fields has noticed a growing number of school systems in Georgia willing to put more resources into technical programs because of the career possibilities for young people. Students who work in construction apprenticeships outside of the typical curriculum become automatic recruiters of their peers, which often serves as a bigger influence on kids than parents impressing their own views.

Colorado Construction Institute, labor shortage

Colorado Construction Institute

The Construction Education Foundation of Georgia has expanded its services to middle schools and will soon initiate an elementary school program to help extend the pipeline for skilled labor sources amid the rising deficiency of workers. “It all has to be grassroots,” says Fields, a former teacher. “In public education, you have to break the status quo and establish a new precedent.”

NARI supplies its chapters with the direction and instruction essential for infiltrating local school districts and promoting the trades to youth. Between 20 and 25 percent of jobs in the U.S. call for a four-year college degree, while 60 percent necessitate a technical skill of some kind, says Dan Taddei, director of education and certification for NARI. “That’s really where we have to be.

“We have to convince Mom and Dad that it’s OK to pursue the trades as a vocation. There are still areas where if the program doesn’t link to college, [the schools] don’t want to talk about it,” says Taddei, who advocates assessing the skill sets of students to gain insight. “They prohibit their counselors from talking to the students about any career path other than going to college.”

Staying proactive

Other industries have been suffering from a labor shortage, too, which means remodelers must compete with them as well as each other to attract new employees. Contractors who accept this challenge and increase their visibility in local markets through ingenuity and leadership should strengthen their workforce and ensure prosperity for their companies—in addition to their people.

“The remodelers have to be the voice to the schools, and they have to be available to the tech schools and to the high schools to form mentorships with the students as they go through their junior and senior year,” Taddei says.

“It’s upon us as industry leaders and people who are in the business to not just sit around and whine and cry about the fact that we don’t have anybody to work, but we need to get out there and get active,” says Doug King, owner of Doug King Contracting in Tampa Bay, Florida. “You can issue all the programs [and] you can set up all the different guidelines, but if nobody’s going to use them, they’ll go away.” | QR

Contributing to a Better Society

Josh Dembicki co-founded Colorado Craft Remodelers in February 2016 with an unconventional approach to hiring new employees. Dembicki, who attended graduate school for ethics and social change, studied poverty alleviation and became resolved to create job opportunities for people in downtown Denver recovering from personal setbacks like homelessness and substance addiction.

The full-service remodeler employs eight people, three of whom have come from networks that assist in rebuilding lives following personal misfortune. They learn various aspects of the trades as they advance through recovery programs, and the company provides them with guidance as well as training while they develop valuable skills and embark on new careers within construction.

“If they’re eager to create change in their life, then we’re eager to provide opportunities for them to do that,” says Dembicki, who appreciates the loyalty and reliability that comes from each of the people the company has brought on through local recovery networks. “This is a central value for us, [and] this is a central pillar to what we’re doing because it gives back to the community.”

Dembicki expects Colorado Craft Remodelers to reach $2 million in total revenue in its first year of business, and he says the company remains on track to hit $5 million in 2017. Two more full-time salespeople and another project manager should join the team soon to help with the extra job volume in the next year, he adds. “Take an active interest in what’s going on in your city,” Dembicki says. “Find out who’s doing what in your city, [and] find out what your local needs are.”

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