Exploring The Skilled Trades

The Building Crisis Is Here, Now What?

Jason Burns
Sr Content Strategist

Posted 04/20/2019

My dad was a construction worker for most of his life. He built houses for a living, and when his body was no longer able to handle the daily rigors of building, he sold construction equipment. Most of his friends worked in similar professions— carpenters, roofers, plumbers, electricians. As a kid in the 70s and 80s, it seemed like the world was full of people who earned a living working with their hands. Building. Creating. There was always another housing development going up. A deck to be built. A roof to be shingled.

Over the past few decades, however, things have changed. Not from a demand perspective. After a brief downturn, the housing market is starting to boom again, and spending on remodeling projects is at an all-time high and climbing. The change we’re facing is one of career choice. There is more than enough work available, there just aren’t enough skilled tradespeople to handle the demand. And it’s rapidly progressing from a labor shortage to a full-blown crisis.                       

My dad and other tradespeople from his generation are retired or retiring. But, on average, for every five tradespeople that retire in the U.S., only one person enters the trades. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult for construction companies to find qualified workers.                                        

  • In the Northeast, 77% of companies report skilled labor shortages.
  • In the South and West, that number is as high as 81%.                            
  • In Louisville and Little Rock, construction companies can't find new employees,  and manufacturing firms are having trouble finding both skilled and unskilled workers. (Source)

The housing market is feeling the impact. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Association of Home Builders, 69% of homebuilders are experiencing project delays—or losing jobs altogether—due to a shortage of qualified workers, with skilled trade positions being the hardest to fill.

Residential contractor Shawn McCadden told Forbes that the skilled labor crisis is only going to get worse. “If you think it’s bad now, five to ten years from now it will be awful... Professional craftsmen are going to be few and far between. Demand has outstripped supply and it’s getting worse.”                                                    
Somewhere along the line, between my father’s generation and ours, society’s view of trade careers changed, and not for the better. The desire to build things and work with our hands fell by the wayside, and white-collar careers were seen as the path to “real” success.    

But, according to the experts, those perceptions are somewhat misguided. Bob Ernst, president of FBN Construction, a high-end construction firm in Boston, told Forbes that the labor shortage has forced him to increase salaries to retain good talent.                 

“Some of our skilled carpenters are making $80,000 to $110,000 a year.” This isn’t an isolated case. Many trade professionals earn more than their white-collar counterparts. For example:                       

  • There are 30 million jobs in the US that pay an average of $55,000/year that don't require bachelor's degrees.                            
  • The median starting salary of a master electrician is nearly $10,000/year higher than that of a humanities major with a four-year degree.

It’s not only about money...it’s about availability. There’s an old phrase that says, “it’s good work if you can get it.” In the case of skilled trade positions, that’s not a problem. Over three million trade jobs are expected to open up over the next decade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction jobs (along with healthcare and personal care) will account for one-third of all new jobs through 2022. And the U.S. Department of Education says that people with career and technical educations are significantly more likely to be employed in their fields of study than their counterparts with academic educations.

Trade jobs are in demand. They’re high-payingsatisfying, long-lasting careers. It’s time we reminded people of that, and of how they can be a part of it. Promoting the benefits and opportunities of the skilled trades and revitalizing these career paths that are so essential to society starts here. With Generation T.                               

Follow us. Become an advocate to your local school systems and officials. And encourage the next generation to consider a career path that lets them, quite literally, build the world we live in.