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Lack of Skilled Tradesmen is A Big Challenge Facing the U.S. Economy

The U.S. economy faces a multitude of challenges including the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, spiraling inflation, and worldwide supply chain issues. Add to that list a lack of skilled tradesmen in the workforce that has industry experts concerned.

“The skilled labor shortage is one of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. economy, with 650,000 open jobs in the construction industry alone,” said Stanley Black & Decker CEO Jim Leoree. “This problem existed long before the pandemic but has certainly been exacerbated by it. We must address this issue, or we risk even greater labor shortages in the future.”

That 650,000 construction industry worker shortfall is on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2022 to meet the demand for labor, according to a model developed by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

“ABC’s 2022 workforce shortage analysis sends a message loud and clear: The construction industry desperately needs qualified, skilled craft professionals to build America,” said Michael Bellaman, ABC president and CEO.

Skilled Worker Shortages Across All Trades

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) said last fall that a record number of their members were reporting labor shortages.

“According to the October 2021 survey for the NAHB/Well Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI), more than 55 percent of single-family builders reported a shortage of labor across 16 home-building trades, with the greatest shortage noted among carpentry trades (rough, finished and framing crews),” said the NAHB.

Percentage of U.S. builders reporting in 2021 shortages of subcontractors:

  • Carpenters (framing) 94 percent
  • Carpenters (rough) 93 percent
  • Carpenters (finished) 90 percent
  • Bricklayers/Masons 84 percent
  • Plumbers 83 percent
  • Concrete workers 83 percent
  • Electricians 82 percent
  • Drywall workers 81 percent
  • HVAC workers 80 percent
  • Painters 79 percent
  • Flooring installers 79 percent
  • Roofers 72 percent
  • Excavators 71 percent
  • Landscapers 70 percent
  • Weatherization 63 percent
  • Maintenance 57 percent 

Where Did All the Carpenters Go?

Carpenters are essential to the building process in America, but the country continues to lack skilled workers entering and staying in the profession.

“Builders have more trouble finding carpenters than roofers, electricians, or just about anything else, and by a wide margin,” said The Hustle.

The Hustle said the lack of skilled tradesman taking up carpentry is happening even though:

  • It’s the rare profession that doesn’t require an expensive education
  • It offers decent pay
  • It is largely unaffected by automation and globalization
  • Carpenters are always in steady demand

“They’re indispensable for really any kind of residential construction project,” Paul Emrath, VP of surveys and housing policy research for the NABC, told The Hustle. “Wherever we are in terms of shortages of labor, the shortages are always the most acute and widespread for the categories of carpenters.”

Ed Brady, president of the Home Builders Institute, told the website Bankrate, he used to pay carpenters $2.50 per square foot to frame a house and now pays nearly 3x as much — a cost that is passed on to consumers.

The Graying of the Skilled Trade Workforce

One of the biggest reasons for the lack of skilled tradesmen is the graying of the workforce where retirees are not being replaced by younger workers.

“An added concern is the decline in the number of construction workers ages 25-54, which fell 8 percent over the past decade. Meanwhile, the share of older workers exiting the workforce soared,” said ABC Chief Economist Anirban Basu. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the industry’s average age of retirement is 61, and more than 1 in 5 construction workers are currently older than 55.”

Many of the younger workers entering the construction industry lack qualified skills and are considered just entry-level laborers.

“Since 2011, the number of entry-level construction laborers has increased 72.8 percent, while the number of total construction workers is up just 24.7 percent. More than 40 percent of construction workforce growth over the past decade is comprised of low-skilled construction laborers, who represent just 19 percent of the workforce,” said Basu.

Flipping the Script: Choosing the Trades Over College

Part of the biggest challenge to recruit more skilled workers in the U.S. is to flip the script and convince high school graduates to choose a career path in the trades vs. going straight to college.

Despite the need for more skilled tradesmen, high school enrollment in construction courses has flatlined at just 1.3 percent with 206,000 enrolled out of 16.34 million high school students in 2007 and 214,000 enrolled out of 16.7 million high school students in 2018.

“Possibly our single most important task is to change entrenched and misguided perceptions of this industry and to reach out to the educators, influencers, middle schools, high schools, and those who influence young people’s career decisions,” said Brady. “Working together to engage with local schools, we can get trades skill training curricula into educational institutions, and we can train and provide educational opportunities that will inspire thousands of young people to pursue work in residential construction versus a path of higher education.”

4 Key Drivers of the Skilled Trades Gap

The Black & Decker research found four key drivers of the skilled trades gap:

  1. Misunderstanding of long-term financial security: 81 percent of young people and 78 percent of parents are concerned about the potential cost of education after high school. 87 percent of young people and 93 percent of parents say starting a career sooner than it takes to finish a four-year degree is appealing, but young people are underestimating the starting earning potential for skilled trades. Only 42 percent expect skilled trade workers to earn at least $50K, and 19 percent of young people think the starting pay for a skilled trade worker is less than $20K. In fact, half of current skilled trade workers with less than 10 years' experience earned at least $50K to start.
  2. Incorrect knowledge of required skills: Of the 40 percent of young people who don't believe a skilled trade career is a good option, only 12 percent cited a dislike of manual labor as their primary reason. The main reason cited by those 40 percent of young people was poor fit or lack of skills.
  3. Lack of exposure to individuals currently in the trade profession: Young people lean heavily on people they know – including parents (48% percent), friends and classmates (44 percent) as well as teachers (43 percent) – for help and information related to post-high school planning. But only 42 percent have had a conversation about skilled trade careers with someone in those fields, while 37 percent have never had a conversation with anyone about skilled trade careers.
  4. Continued male-dominated industry: When asked about their familiarity with skilled trades, teen boys are more familiar than teen girls (53 percent vs. 36 percent), and in thinking about the future, boys are more likely to consider a career in a skilled trade (64 percent vs. 49 percent).

“Now is the time to consider a career in construction,” said Bellaman. “The vocation offers competitive wages and many opportunities to both begin and advance in an industry that builds the places where we work, play, worship, learn and heal.”