A fairly robust economy, a significant pipeline of energy projects and promising prospects for future contracts portend a prosperous future for the energy construction industry, but a significant challenge looms in the near future: our skilled workforce is aging, and the labor pipeline is not being sufficiently replenished by younger workers.
The recession that began in 2008, when construction projects in our industry ground to a halt, is one major reason for this. Key financing was not available and project development stalled. Jobs disappeared and workers looked to other career choices for employment. Another factor is the tendency of our education system to encourage students to attend college, often devaluing the skilled trades. Tech companies, for example, are a huge draw for Millennials and Gen X. The rationale is that’s where the money is. But we know college isn’t for everyone – nor should it be.
There are many financially secure professions, including construction. Wages and benefits have improved significantly as the needed skill levels rise. New technologies require highly skilled workers to perform welding, pipefitting and electrical work as the power plants of the future are assembled. Skilled workers are needed to operate and maintain them. A skilled-trade background opens the door to a different career path, interesting, valued, respected and well-paid. A person can advance from skilled worker to foreman to superintendent and, with capacity and under the right circumstances; move as far up the leadership ladder as desired. Understanding the intricacies of the hands-on, complex work required to build and maintain a power plant provides a solid foundation for advancement. When combined with intellectual curiosity and drive, opportunities are nearly limitless.
However, there is not an easy fix. Solutions require collaboration, outreach and promotion. The problem can’t be solved alone by private industry, the educational system, organized labor or government.
Our industry needs to do a better job promoting the benefits of careers in the power sector. A broad range of technical skills is needed on any job site, and the technology used today is significantly more advanced than just a few years ago. Specialty welding processes and complex DCS systems are just a couple of examples. Computer tablets and 3D modeling are now common tools on most job sites. There are also numerous opportunities for highly valuable hands-on carpentry, pipefitting, and heavy rigging skills on every project.
Our companies also need to retain our first-class craft talent by providing training, competitive benefits and rewards commensurate with other professions. We also need to reach out to women who comprise 50% of the population but are severely underrepresented in the skilled construction trades.
Our education system needs to engage and align with today’s workforce needs. School systems, educators and guidance counselors must present a broader range of career options for all students starting at an early age. Not every student should be steered toward a two-year or four-year college program. Students who opt for apprenticeship programs get paid while learning valuable skills and graduate without the burden of student-loan debt.
We do not have the luxury of time. The situation will only grow more acute as more skilled workers retire. We need to address it today with a sound strategic approach and commitment from all sectors.
William F. Griffin is the chief executive officer at Gemma Power Systems.