Mike Dunham couldn’t help noticing. 

Handing out safety awards to construction supervisors at a ceremony in Georgia, he saw more gray hair than at a classical music concert. Dunham, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors’ Georgia chapter, did some digging into demographics. Of the nearly 860 supervisors who submitted applications for the award, he found that more than 50% were 50 years old or older and that 26% were over the age of 60.

It is a situation that worries construction officials, not only in Georgia but also across the U.S. “For every four and a half to five people who are aging out of our marketplace, we’re only putting one person back in,” Dunham says. “People are leaving our industry just because they’re growing old and retiring, yet young men and women don’t see construction as a career path.”

Dunham sees the drain in recruitment as a competitive issue for his state. In October, for the fifth consecutive year, Site Selection magazine ranked Georgia as best in the U.S. for doing business. But Dunham worries the state’s reputation won’t last if skilled trades and professions, such as nursing and information technology, can’t keep up with employer demands. He says, “You can’t bring business here unless you’ve got a job-ready workforce.”

Dunham sees traditional means of recruitment, such as high-school career fairs, as inefficient, yielding only a half dozen or so students who are genuinely interested in construction for every thousand in attendance. Instead, he and others in the state’s building industry are banking on an internet-based product called YouScience to assess students’ aptitudes and link them to various careers, including construction.

Unlike traditional career-guidance tools, which have tended to focus mostly on interests, YouScience tests students’ verbal and mathematical aptitudes, with an additional emphasis on pattern recognition and retention. It also contains a self-assessment for work styles and interpersonal styles to see whether students are relatively more introverted or extroverted and whether they prefer working in small or large groups. 

Next, the program translates abilities and preferences into specific career recommendations, suggesting that students are a strong, good, fair or weak fit for about 500 jobs. YouScience also lists the number of openings in each field, both nationally and by state, and reports entry-level, top-level and average salaries.

“I think this will give students a GPS for a graduation plan where they can see the destination,” says Georgia state Senator Lindsey Tippins, a pipeline contractor and member of AGC Georgia. Tippins, a former Cobb County school board member and chair of the Georgia Senate’s education and youth committee, spearheaded the state’s effort to find a data-driven instrument to help students discover their strengths. More than 120,000 students in 186 schools across 86 state counties have registered for the YouScience career test, and 6,000 students already have completed it.

False starts for students after high school have created significant frustration for Dr. Tim Brown, career pathways director for the Marietta, Ga., city schools, where YouScience was first evaluated in Georgia. 

“What we’re trying to help alleviate is the vast number of students who go off to a post-secondary institution but never complete anything,” Brown says. Nationally, many of those students—as well as university graduates and the estimated 30% of high-school graduates who never attend traditional two-year or four-year colleges—eventually enroll in a technical college to find a career in a well-paying trade or hands-on profession, such as nursing or data administration. 

Dunham says the problem is that students entering Georgia’s technical colleges are, on average, 28 years old. He calls the 10 years between high-school graduation and enrollment in a technical college “the lost decade.”

“Here’s an 18-year-old kid who graduates from high school, and the first time we find him is when he’s come back to the technical school at 28—probably married, probably with kids—and realizes, ‘I can’t make it in life without learning something that gives me an opportunity to make a good living.’ And we think that’s really hard on our industry if we’re not picking up people until they’re getting to their late 20s. We need to figure out how to get that student’s interest up at 18 and get him immediately ready to go into our workforce.”

Dunham thinks YouScience can help do that. Meanwhile, another advocate of YouScience—Randall Redding, president and CEO of R.K. Redding Construction in Bremen, Ga., and a former president of AGC Georgia—believes the program may broaden the field. He notes that, during pilot testing throughout the state, seven times more girls had an aptitude for construction than showed an interest. 

“That meant to me that they didn’t know about the jobs in construction,” Redding says. When both girls and boys discover aptitudes and opportunities in the field, “that gives us a group of people we can contact to bring in and let them work summer jobs for us, co-op with us and get into the construction industry in a real, tangible way,” he notes.

Further, Brown and YouScience CEO Philip Hardin say Georgia’s pilot tests showed that aptitudes distributed evenly between boys and girls and across ethnic and socioeconomic lines. As an example, Brown points to the male-dominated IT field, where both sexes demonstrated roughly equal aptitudes. Boys, however, showed much more interest in IT than did girls. “That’s a lesson to me,” Brown says. “We need to do a better job with career exploration.”

Hardin calls that rift the “exposure gap” and, like Redding, sees an opportunity for recruiting in fields such as construction. He advocates a two-pronged approach to attract more girls and minorities to the industry.

“No. 1 is helping uncover those aptitudes and those talents for these young women and young minorities so that they understand they do have the talent for it,” he observes. “No. 2 is a more focused partnership between the construction industry and local construction companies and the education side.” 

Many students may view construction simply as manual labor and don’t know about the industry’s many facets, Hardin says, adding, “They don’t realize the level of engineering, architecture, management, cost estimation, budgeting and project management as well as skilled trades—electricians, plumbers.” 

“So, what we’re trying to do is give a better road map to engagement between employers and schools,” he adds. “We can help identify the 30 or 40 kids at a school that have a high aptitude and/or a high interest so that we can help personalize the engagement between a local construction company or an industry and the school system.”

For his part, Brown welcomes the idea of speaking to students about their talents, whether they be academic or more trade-focused. He says, “YouScience lets students know that it’s OK to have aptitudes that may not lead to a four-year college major, such as in the construction fields.”

Tippins, the contractor and state senator, calls himself “a firm believer in aptitudes” who always has tried to connect his employees’ strengths to the jobs at hand. He especially likes YouScience’s ability to identify students’ aptitudes and match them with job opportunities in Georgia’s economy. Tippins sees a wide application for the technology, which is available online to the public as well as to schools.

“The benefit is, it just gives students direction that they have not had in the past,” he says. “I hope what we’re doing is going to be replicated in other states. It’s clearly needed in the state of Georgia.”