A new study from Associated Builders and Contractors finds that the construction industry will need to hire 430,000 additional workers to meet 2021 demand. That’s good news for the economy, especially since construction is among the rare sectors in which employees can enjoy middle class or better careers without crushing college debt. But instead of incentivizing growth, existing practices too often throw up unnecessary roadblocks to it.
In the construction trades, ludicrous ratio requirements hamstring companies’ ability to hire new people. As a parent, imagine how excited you’d be if there were only five students in one of your child’s classes, allowing him or her to get lots of personal attention from the teacher. But in construction, up to five journeypersons (essentially, teachers) can be required for each apprentice (the students in this analogy). This dramatically constricts companies’ ability to hire new employees without providing any corresponding benefit.
When instituted decades ago, these government-imposed ratios were seen as “protecting the bench” of senior workers; now these upside–down hiring restrictions, unique to construction, threaten the future of the industry.
Education and training are critical for an industry that has become dramatically more complex and technology-driven in recent years. But some requirements seem more focused on pulling up the drawbridge behind existing licensed tradespeople than on being relevant – and making sense – to the current generation. For example, earning a sheet metal journeyperson’s license requires five years of training and 750 classroom hours – longer than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires to earn a license to operate a nuclear power plant.
Adapt to New Career Paths
Today’s construction industry can successfully refute old stereotypes of dirty, tough and unsafe work with a multitude of examples of a highly sophisticated industry where safety and technology are at the forefront. But if the apprenticeship and licensing requirements seem from generations past, we won’t attract the YouTube generation that we absolutely need to recruit.
As an example, when COVID-19 forced ABC’s Gould Construction Institute and other construction education providers to pivot to online classes, the feedback from students was positive. Teachers embraced the YouTube environment and created their own videos. Students and teachers have told us they would like to see a virtual component be incorporated into their programs post-COVID, but that is up to the licensing boards and they have been reluctant to allow it.
As the pace of change in the industry increases, the regulatory and licensing framework can be slow to adapt and can see evolution as threatening. Previously, almost all construction work took place at job sites, but recent years have seen the rise of prefabrication – work that is performed offsite in a controlled environment and transported to the job.
The prefabrication model of working in a shop or manufacturing facility – going to the same place each day out of the elements – is appealing to people who don’t want to work on a construction jobsite. It is offers viable new career paths within the construction industry for COVID unemployed and others in non-career jobs. That is, unless government puts onerous requirements on this work that negate its appeal.
The construction industry uses an apprenticeship model to train new professionals. But government-regulated “registered” apprenticeships in construction are highly bureaucratic and not user-friendly to either employers or employees.
Apprenticeship is regulated by two state agencies: The Division of Apprenticeship Services, which is under the Executive Office of Labor, and the Division of Professional Licensure, which is part of Consumer Affairs. Each acts independently, setting its own requirements that are not always in synch, and employers are required to keep track of and comply with both.
Voc-Tech Schools Offer Possible Solution
Massachusetts’ vocational-technical schools have rightly been recognized as a national model. Using a unique system of switching off weekly between academics and vocational training, the schools have miniscule dropout rates and are competitive with the commonwealth’s comprehensive high schools on state tests.
But there is a disconnect between these tremendous resources and the licensed trades. Voc-tech graduates often get too little credit toward licensing requirements for the training they have already received.
A disconnect of another type exists in Boston, with inner-city contractors long frustrated over underperforming Madison Park. Its programs are not delivering for Boston youth as those of other Massachusetts voc–techs are for their students. Contractors that hire graduating students must find apprentice training for them outside of the city at the same time as Madison Park’s classrooms sit empty. Instead, it could follow the model of peer schools and offer evening trade apprenticeship programs as another means of supporting a career pipeline within the city.
Massachusetts has 340,000 fewer jobs than it did at the start of the pandemic, and construction is an industry that holds the potential to fuel our recovery and bring back those jobs. The model of vocational training and construction apprenticeships is a good one. It needs to evolve, and some rigid policies that now serve as employment barriers and disincentives need to be replaced with more flexible ones that are aligned with current industry practices and modern learning styles.
Greg Beeman is president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts.