Nationally, 86 percent of construction firms reported having a difficult time finding qualified workers to fill vacant positions, according to a recent Association of General Contractors (AGC) survey. This survey follows an AGC report earlier this year that predicts a shortage of 2.5 million construction workers. The lack of workers is having a negative impact on the industry and impeding the economic recovery, particularly in Arizona.
“This problem is even more staggering in states like Arizona where construction is a major economic engine and fuels numerous other industries,” said Justin Kelton, executive vice president at McCarthy Building Companies in Phoenix. “We have to focus on workforce development to ensure our industry as a whole has enough qualified workers to support future growth.”
Training Tomorrow’s Workforce
In Arizona, there are 14 Joint Technical Education Districts (JTEDs) offering Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs at the high school level in numerous trades, including industries that are most in need of skilled workers: healthcare, construction and manufacturing.
West-MEC, which stands for Western Maricopa Education Center, is one of the Arizona-based districts working to fill these industries’ needs. West-MEC has several programs that fall under the construction umbrella; in August 2015 the school launched a General Construction Technology core program with the support of local businesses and industry.
“We put together advisory groups of local businesses and industry leaders for each of our occupational areas who review our programs so we know the skills we’re teaching are the same skills needed in the workforce,” said Gregory Donovan, superintendent of West-MEC. “Our ultimate goal is to produce students who have earned industry credentials and, in the case of our General Construction Technology program, that means accreditation by the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER).”
NCCER is a nonprofit that was developed in the late 1990s with the support of more than 125 construction CEOs and various industry and academic leaders to revolutionize training for the construction industry. Today, the organization offers standardized training and credentialing programs for more than 70 craft and trade areas.
Both West-MEC and McCarthy are NCCER-accredited organizations. While interest in CTE is on the rise, Donovan cautioned, “Programs like ours cannot begin to meet the need. We cannot turn out enough students to support the needs of industry for quality, educated workers.”
Fighting Low-Pay Perceptions
Rose Ann Canizales, president of the Association for Construction Career Development, agrees. Her organization, in partnership with government agencies and private industry, puts on the annual Arizona Construction Career Days event for high school students with the goal of fostering an interest in construction.
“With our graying workforce and Baby Boomers retiring, the demand for qualified construction workers will be greater than ever,” Canizales said. “We hope to show students that construction is an honorable career, fostering values of pride in workmanship, strength, dedication and a focus on safety.”
Part of the workforce shortage problem can be attributed to image. Construction careers are perceived as low paying when, in fact, earnings in construction are higher than the average for all industries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Non-supervisory jobs in construction average $23 an hour with wages for construction managers averaging $41 an hour.
“There is still a general disdain for vocational training, which earned a reputation in past decades as a place for students without bright futures,” Donovan added. “Today, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Our students are more likely to graduate, score better on standardized tests and have developed an interest in a career pathway, resulting in a more relevant education.”
In addition to CTE programs and events like Arizona Construction Career Days, public and private sectors are coming together to develop solutions that address the skilled construction worker shortage through robust educational policy, post-secondary school programs, and apprenticeship training opportunities. Companies like McCarthy are addressing the issue by bolstering best-in-class recruiting and training programs that attract quality talent trained to meet NCCER standards.
“If the workforce shortage continues, it means labor costs will continue to rise and that will negatively impact our local economy,” Kelton said. “The construction career path is a rewarding career choice. I can attest to the pride and sense of accomplishment one feels when driving past a hospital, school or other community landmark knowing that you helped build it.”