Faced with what could be an unprecedented labor shortage as the economy picks up, construction professionals are uniting in a mission to rebuild the pipeline of young workers that once flowed into the industry from vocational and technical education programs across the country.

Image courtesy of AGC
AGC of America economist Ken Simonson (right) and Phil Washington, general manager of Denver's Regional Transportation District, helped to launch AGC's new workforce initiative program in Denver in April.

“Somewhere in recent decades, our country made a collective decision that everyone should attend college. The robust work force and technical education programs that once existed in our high schools disappeared in favor of college-track programs,” says Brian Turmail, executive director of public affairs for the Associated General Contractors of America. “When we lost this opportunity to show students what working in construction is really like and the opportunities out there, we lost our pool of skilled workers as well.”

During the past eight years alone, federal funding for career and technical education has declined from $1.3 billion a year to $1.12 billion in 2014. AGC is among several groups lobbying lawmakers for multiple reforms to the Perkins Act, enacted in 1988 to help states fund secondary and postsecondary college and technical education programs. Even President Obama has called for more rigorous technical education programs, stressing the issue in his 2014 State of the Union speech.

AGC is asking Congress to provide states with greater flexibility to establish sector partnerships and develop programs that respond to labor-market demands. According to a nationwide AGC survey conducted last summer, nearly three-quarters of construction firms are struggling to find qualified craft workers. Construction consultant FMI projects that the industry needs to add 1.5 million workers to complete the volume of work expected by year’s end.

And the shortage is expected to intensify in coming years, as more undocumented craft workers are forced to leave the country and the last of the baby boomers retire—upwards of 1.1 million by some estimates. By 2016, U.S. construction projects will require 6.7 million workers—about 50% more than are on the job or available today, according to the Construction Labor Market Analyzer, a Web-based tool for collecting and aggregating construction labor data.

“We’re behind the curve in preparing for the exodus of the baby boomers. The incubation period for top craftspeople is five to six years,” says Mark Breslin, CEO of United Contractors, a California-based association representing union-affiliated construction firms and associates in the western states.

Breslin adds that both union and non-union apprenticeship programs will need to double in size over the next four years to meet anticipated demands. To persuade more young people to join their ranks, more trade unions—especially those with high labor demands like plumbers, pipefitters, electricians and heavy equipment operators—are becoming active in high schools and establishing partnerships with local colleges so that workers can earn college credit while completing apprenticeships.

Among the areas hardest hit by the labor shortage are the Southeast and Gulf states, where work force training and education programs hope to spur new interest in skilled trades. One program is the Construction Careers Academy (CCA) in San Antonio, Texas. It offers four “strands” that prepare high school students for careers in architecture, construction management, engineering and the trades.

Students can specialize in carpentry, HVAC, pipefitting, plumbing, welding or electrical work. Funded with voter-approved capital bonds in 2007 to fill a vocational education void, the school relies on grants, material donations and community partnerships for its projects. CCA has quickly become a competitive favorite in the district, with 505 eighth graders applying for the 159 spots in next year’s freshman class. Total enrollment is around 475 students.

Revered by industry groups as a national model for construction education, the school pairs classroom curriculum and laboratory training with on-the-job shadowing and project-based experience like working with Habitat for Humanity or constructing a functional 400-sq-ft micro home. Additionally, many classes qualify for college credits via local technical schools. Now in its fifth year, the magnet school is preparing to graduate its second senior class in May.

AGC of St. Louis led the 2001 creation of Construction Careers Charter High School, the first publicly funded high school for construction in the U.S. More recently, the Central Ohio chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors started its own public charter high school for construction. The chapter brought the school from concept to inception in just 10 months, collecting $200,000 from members to renovate and expand the chapter’s office space to house the 18,000-sq-ft institution. The school opened last September with 30 students and the four-year program includes online courses, classroom instruction and on-the-job training.

“What we’re seeing is strong interest from urban, inner-city students who come from economically challenged backgrounds,” says Bart Hacker, president and CEO of ABC Central Ohio Chapter. He serves as the school’s acting head administrator. “A lot of our students have never used a hammer before, but they’re hungry to learn a skill,” he adds.