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

"Somewhere in recent decades, our country made a collective decision that everyone should attend college. The robust workforce 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 to $1.12 billion in 2014 from a high of $1.3 billion a year. 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 the industry will need to add 1.5 million workers to complete the volume of work expected by year's end.

However, 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 that represents union-affiliated construction firms and associates in the western states.

Both union and non-union apprenticeship programs will need to double in size over the next four years to meet demand, adds Breslin. To persuade more young people to join their ranks, trades—especially those with high labor demands, such as plumbers, pipe- fitters, electricians and equipment operators—are becoming active in high schools and establishing partnerships with local colleges so workers can earn college credit while completing apprenticeships.

Among the areas hit hardest by the labor shortage are the Southeast and Gulf states, where workforce training and education programs hope to spur new interest in skilled trades. One such 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 favorite in the district, with 505 eighth-graders applying for the 159 spots in next year's freshman class. Total enrollment is 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, such as working with Habitat for Humanity or constructing a functional, 400-sq-ft micro home. Also, local technical schools are accepting some classes for college credit. 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 the Construction Careers Charter High School, the first publicly funded high school for construction in the U.S. More recently, the Central Ohio chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) started its own public charter high school for construction. The chapter took the school, from concept to reality, 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 school. Opened last September with 30 students, the four-year program includes online courses, classroom instruction and on-the-job training.

"What we're seeing is strong interest from 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.

Meanwhile, AGC encourages other states to follow the lead of Kansas, which allows high school students to enroll, tuition-free, in public community-college career and technical programs and have the courses count toward their high school diplomas. Similarly, if signed into law by the governor, a bill that recently passed both the Alabama House and Senate will allow the state to set aside up to $10 million for dual-enrollment scholarships for students interested in a trade.

But industry image remains a problem. In 2010, the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute launched the non-profit Go Build America to help students, parents and educators understand the value of learning a trade. Following Alabama's lead, Georgia launched its own Go Build initiative in 2012, and now Indiana and several other states are exploring it, too. "The program is designed to address the labor needs in each state," says Bob Woods, executive director of Go Build America. "While we want to expand the campaign, we only want to enter states where labor demands exist. Career fairs and expos are not enough to solve this shortage."

The program appears to be making strides. A Go Build survey in Alabama showed a 51% increase in first-year construction-trade education enrollments in 2013 and more than 30% of students said "Go Build" played a direct role in their decision to enter the skilled trades.

Key to improving the industry's image problem is breaking the "broker mentality" of many companies, says Mike Holland, division president with Houston-based Marek Bros. Instead of cultivating and maintaining their own workforce, more construction companies are contracting workers through labor brokers, thereby reducing responsibility for employee benefits, training and wages, Holland explains.

"As an industry, we're not going to convince young people to choose a path in the crafts unless we are truly committed to their future. Using brokers contradicts the message we're trying to send," Holland says.

Marek is among a group of owners, contractors and specialty contractors that have joined forces to develop and share effective training, recruitment and retention practices. The Houston-based alliance, known as the Construction Career Collaborative (C3), draws on national best practices to develop an accreditation process that requires employers to comply with safety training standards and hourly payroll practices.

Jerry Nevlud, president and CEO of AGC Houston, says C3's goal is to educate the industry and the community on the benefits of investing in commercial construction craft workers. He says that everyone—both open and union shops—are welcome at the table.

"The challenge we have is not just meeting immediate labor needs but developing a sustainable workforce for decades," Nevlud says. "We need to show young men and women that the industry is committed to providing not just a job but a career."