Having spent the entirety of my career in construction-related employment endeavors and business ownership, I have been fascinated by the machinations of training and workforce development in the trades and other supporting construction activities.
We have reached a crisis in that arena that has been building for the past 20-plus years, and it’s now reaching a crescendo with the current breakneck pace of building and development. While it is invigorating to see new projects break ground, with new, exciting developments going into service for our growing community, the forgotten truth is most general contractors and their related sub-contractors face the biggest challenge of their careers in simply getting enough hands-on (skilled and unskilled) talent in the field to actually get the work done.
The current unemployment rate posted for Washington state is 4.5 percent (5 percent for Clark County). Whether you dispute the current figures as “adjusted” or even “manipulated,” the reality on the street is that there are not enough people entering the construction trades to meet the current demand. We have felt this pressure at my previous firm for well over a decade. There are family-wage jobs available for talented and interested workers, but there are many barriers to entry (like state-mandated licensing requirements and access to apprenticeship programs that are not union-affiliated and that do not apply to many of the skills needed. Add to that the fact that most young workers are not being prepared for regular full-time employment (knowing the importance of showing up on time, the fundamentals of taking responsibility, meeting performance objectives and a basic understanding of being prepared to trade time spent on the clock for the wage earned, regardless of the pay rate).
We have lost focus of the fact that many low-skill, lower paying jobs are not meant to be family-wage jobs, but are in reality there to help offer new workers the space to gain fundamental skills so they are better prepared to go to work in a family-wage job. Mandated higher wage rates are not the answer – that is just a hidden tax for all of us. Opening the opportunity to new workers for training and the fundamentals of working is the better path to keep the benefit-cost relationship intact for everyone, worker, consumer and business operation.
Mike Rowe, best known for hosting the television series “Dirty Jobs,” has been actively lobbying and educating the public and the public servants in Congress, very much in the spirit of his popular program. His testimonies can be found all over YouTube (search “Mike Row testimony”).The essence of Rowe’s comments are based on how we, as Americans, have lost the value of the basis on which our country’s prosperity has been catapulted. The real work that gets done every day (plumbing, electrical, carpentry, heating and cooling maintenance, etc.) is so presumptive on the part of most Americans, that we think little of how all that stuff actually works and, unfortunately, don’t care until it doesn’t. Then, in that moment of crisis, all we do care about is making the problem go away. And while most office workers are quite familiar with the cost of getting their copy machine repaired (at a technician rate usually in excess of $125/Hour), we have absolute abhorrence if a plumber wants to charge us $80 to $90 to fix our plugged faucet or toilet. I ask you, which one of those problems would create greater havoc on the overall public health and the well-being of our households and towns? Yet because we perceive it as dirty or beneath our own interest, we balk at paying for the most needed of services.
Additionally, Mr. Rowe focuses on the direction and value provided through our current educational model. The value proposition presented to most high school students is that the purpose of high school is to get prepared for a college education without the full revelation that many of the jobs of the next generation will not even require a four-year degree. With the exception of avenue like our Skills Center (Cascadia Technical Academy), the message delivered to our children is that anything other than college is not valued. What companies want today are people ready to work and, better yet, those who know how to work. We small business owners have long accepted the fact that we must train employees to do the specific tasks related to our various fields. What we do offer for talented and ultimately skilled employees is the opportunity for a family-wage job that will provide personal fulfillment and a career.
In the spirit of Mike Rowe’s testimony, let’s not let getting a little dirt under our fingernails point the rising generation in the wrong direction of a shrinking field of mid-management business degrees, but to the larger share of employment opportunities presenting themselves in the construction trades and supporting fields that better our lives on a daily basis.
Matthew D. Todd is the entrepreneurial operating system (EOS) implementer at Pac Crest Business Engineering, where he works with other entrepreneurs to help them get what they want out of their business. An HVAC industry veteran, he has served on boards in local and national chapters of construction industry associations and is a former president of Lewis River Rotary.