[Construction Equipment]
May 5, 1998

Local groups try to bring workers into construction

Special to the Journal

Look around the Puget Sound area and it is hard to miss the tower cranes dotting the landscape, signaling construction in progress. What is not immediately obvious is the difficulty companies are having finding trained craftspeople to work on those construction sites.

According to labor statistics, an average of 240,000 skilled workers are needed every year to replace those who are retiring or leaving the construction industry and to allow for growth. The average age of journey-level workers is 48 years old. This creates a need for new workers that is not being met.

Carpentry students

Carpentry students work on a playhouse for hte Make-a-Wish Foundation.

The Washington State Employment Security Department forecasted in September of 1996 that construction industry employment would increase by 8 percent between 1995 and 2000 and by 2 percent between 2000 and 2005. These figures are not adjusted for the recent approval of the RTA and the two sports stadium proposals.

Our local craft worker shortage is consistent with the results of a national survey reported in "Confronting the Skilled Construction Work Force Shortage," a paper published in October of 1997 by The Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers committed to improving public policy.

In late 1996, The Business Roundtable surveyed its members to validate the many reported effects of shortages in the skilled work force. Over 60 percent of the survey respondents indicated they had encountered a shortage of skilled craft workers, and 75 percent reported the trend had increased over the past five years. These results are consistent with recent studies done by several construction industry associations.

Construction companies faced with a lack of skilled trades people, meet the demand in a variety of ways. Often they have had to increase overtime by current workers or use more subcontractors, resulting in higher project costs and missed deadlines. The long term approach, finding and training young people to enter the industry, is one that is successfully being used by a number of companies.

"The construction industry has changed from looking at labor as a commodity to seeing it as a corporate asset," says Jack Rafn of the Rafn Co. "To be successful in this business, we must take responsibility for education and not rely on schools to produce the workers we need. Our challenge is to provide jobs for interested students, train them while they are working and bring them into the industry as a career choice."

Rafn is in the fourth year of a program in which he recruits four high school graduates per year, puts them to work, provides training and mentoring and has seen them grow into highly motivated and successful employees.

The Construction Industry Training Council (CITC), a non-profit licensed and state-approved vocational school for the construction industry, is working to improve the ability of the industry to attract workers through apprenticeship programs, school-to-career programs and public awareness campaigns.

In March 1998, CITC was officially recognized as an Accredited Training Program Sponsor by the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER). This accreditation is a formal, national recognition of the quality of curriculum, training and instructors at the school. CITC is now one of 101 nationally accredited training program sponsors with more than 30,000 registered students across the country.

CITC offers a four-year apprenticeship program for the open shop industry that includes technical classroom instruction partnered with on-the-job training. National accreditation benefits students because they receive transcripts that provide formal documentation of NCCER training, which is important when approaching employers.

As a charter sponsor of CITC, Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington also offers training for its more than 280 member companies and their employees as well as other general and subcontractors. ABC members include both open shop and union contractors, professional service firms and suppliers.

CITC works to remind contractors of the importance of properly trained employees. Any company that wants to survive and succeed needs to understand that long-term business success depends on having a trained work force.

Training affects the bottom line in both the cost of supervising unskilled workers and the high cost of redoing unacceptable work. With less-skilled workers, more money is spent on managers to supervise them, which in the long run is more expensive than providing training. In addition, trained workers are safer. Unskilled workers are more prone to injury and can increase a company's liability and workers' compensation premiums.

Another CITC program, school-to-career internships, began in 1997. Currently, five Rainier Beach High School seniors have entered paid school-to-career internships with sponsoring contractors S.D. Deacon Construction, MARPAC Construction, and W.G. Clark Construction in Seattle.

After completing classroom craft training during the fall 1997 semester, the Rainier Beach students are now receiving hands-on exposure to the industry under the guidance of a one-on-one mentor at each job site. One of the main goals of the program, and a big selling point for participating contractors, is to permanently hire promising students into an apprenticeship program upon their high school graduation. CITC hopes to expand the program into more school districts in the future.

School-to-career programs are booming across the country because the job market currently provides an open door to trained craftspeople. But one group has been opposed to STC programs: parents. The core problem, according to one educator, "is parents who believe that a four-year college degree will secure their child's place in the shrinking middle class. They are wary of any education plan that sounds at all different from the familiar college prep route," says Kenneth Gray, a professor in the College of Education at Pennsylvania State University.

In his article "The Gatekeepers" (Techniques, January 1997), Gray says that many parents falsely believe that there is a relationship between college degrees and high-paying jobs.

"While it is true that college graduates continue to earn more than high school graduates, a bachelor's degree is not a guarantor of a high income," says Gray. "The economic return from college is a complex issue. Education accounts for only some of the variation in individual earnings. Supply and demand are the key factors."

Professional jobs comprise only 20 percent of all occupations, a surprise to parents who believe their children, armed with a bachelor's degree, will be able to find a professional job. The fact is that there are not enough professional jobs to go around.

"Only one in two who graduate with a professional credential, such as teaching, engineering, accounting or the biological sciences, will find commensurate employment," says Gray. "While our nation's colleges graduate 1.2 million students each year with professional degrees, the economy generates only 600,000 jobs."

Gary Darling, owner of Mastercraft Electric in Seattle has apprentices at all levels. First-year apprentices earn more than twice the minimum wage plus medical, dental, pension, training, vacation and holiday pay. The base wage continues to increase as the employee gains experience.

One of Darling's employees came to the company nine years ago from a construction materials job that paid little more than minimum wage. Today, he is the head of the low voltage and fiber optics division of the company and sits on a committee for CITC to help bring young people into the crafts.

Part of CITC's mission is to educate students and parents that jobs in the construction industry offer good pay and long-term career stability. An employment publication, Today's Careers, reported in its Jan. 30, 1998, issue, "Journey-level workers can make $45,000 and up. Superintendents, who run construction jobs day-to-day, can make $60,000. Top carpenters can make $80,000."

The backbone of the U.S. economy, the construction industry offers a way to build a future.

Kathleen Garrity is executive director of Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Washington (ABC). Sandra Olson is executive director of the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington (CITC).

Copyright © 1998 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.