By Joseph Benedict
In New York and around the country, construction and other industries that rely on skilled workers are facing increasing workforce shortages. After generations of perpetuation of the belief that a four-year degree is the only path to “success,” we now have a society that does not value the skills necessary to construct a building or a road and an aging construction workforce that will see half of its ranks retire in the next 15 years.
Mass retirement is only part of the problem. As we experience this dramatic reduction in the construction workforce, our economy will actually need an increase in the number of construction workers. The New York State Department of Labor’s employment projections from 2014 to 2024 for the 17 major industries that make up our economy lists construction as the fastest growing labor market at 28 percent. To put that in real figures, as New York loses half of its roughly 350,000 construction workers to retirement, our economy will need the construction workforce to grow to 440,000. At our current worker recruitment pace, we will not come close to that target.
Many construction companies are already limited in the work they can perform because they don’t have enough workers. It is not difficult to imagine what will happen in a few short years if we do not make a change. A leaky pipe causing trouble in your basement? Better get on the plumber’s six-month waiting list and take out a second mortgage to pay for it. Your tax bill will also be affected as costs to build and maintain our infrastructure and public buildings will continue to increase.
The irony of this problem is that there are great careers in construction. Construction workers make a good living and take pride in what they do. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average construction worker in the Buffalo Niagara area makes about $50,000 per year – that’s $5,000 more than the average for all industries. Depending on the trade and the individual’s skill level, the earning potential is much more than that.
The solution to this problem requires better information and improved accessibility. Better information meaning that individuals considering career choices are presented with more than just those options that come from a four-year degree. And improved accessibility to vocational training such as BOCES programs and “shop class.” Most schools no longer offer shop class that teaches construction basics and funding for BOCES programs is at risk.
Construction jobs are just as important today as they were 50 years ago. We are providing a disservice to our youth and our communities by not realizing this. Young people thinking about what they “want to be when they grow up” deserve the opportunity to make a well-informed decision that will be one of the most important they make in their life.
Joseph Benedict is executive director of the Construction Exchange of Buffalo & WNY.