Building industry faces a shortage of skilled workers in 90s, study finds

February 10, 1991|By James Johnson | James Johnson,McClatchy News Service

The construction industry must work to expand and enhance training programs if a serious shortage of skilled workers in the 1990s is to be overcome, a new study concludes.

The study, released at the recent convention of the National Association of Home Builders, attributes the predicted shortage to continuing growth in the number of jobs in the industry, coupled with a decline in the number of people available to fill them.

California will need 13,236 more carpenters and 5,130 more electricians during that period, according to the study, "An Analysis of America's Construction Work Force and Occupational Projections (1990-1996)."

The construction industry's days as "an employer's market" are coming to an end, said Fred Day, a co-author of the study and a representative of the co-sponsor, the Home Builders Institute, the educational arm of the NAHB.

"Unlike prior recessions, where large pools of skilled workers anxiously awaited recovery," he said, "today's building employer will be caught short when the market turns around -- unless he becomes involved in recruitment and training."

"The shortage of qualified, trained journeymen carpenters is definitely growing," agreed Joe Franklin, an apprenticeship program coordinator in Sacramento. "We are not replacing all of the people that are leaving or retiring."

Herb Stone, area division manager of the National Electrical Contractors Association, said recruitment has become more difficult and expensive. Still, the number of applicants for apprenticeship programs, which the association co-sponsors, has declined in recent years, he said.

More apprenticeship programs are needed, said Murphy Dysart, manager of the Sacramento Valley Chapter of the Western Electrical Contractors Association. Mr. Dysart said his association has been trying for two years to get state approval of a training program.

"The process is very difficult," he said.

Nationally, the pool of young workers (aged 16-24) during the decade will shrink from 26 million to 24 million because of declining birth rates, said James Van Erden, director of the Office of Work-Based Learning of the U.S. Department of Labor, which helped to finance the study.

"As we look into the '90s, we find that a lot of our trades and a lot of our industries are faced with an older work force that is getting ready to retire and will have to be replaced," he said.

Fewer young people are choosing careers in construction because of its less-than-favorable image, according to Mr. Van Erden.

"More youths are opting for white-collar jobs, or they are entering other industries," he said. "It's a lot easier to work behind a computer screen in an air-conditioned office, with paid holidays and lots of vacation time, than it is to go out into the rain and mud to work on a construction site."

Although the job-growth rate in the construction industry will average around 2 percent in the 1990s, compared to 5 to 6 percent in the 1980s, he said, the growth rate in some trades in some states will be as high as 7 percent.

There is no single solution to the shortage of skilled workers, Mr. Van Erden said.

Women and minorities will have to be recruited more aggressively, he said, and training programs must become more flexible.

"Some young people learn well in class from a single teacher, taking notes from a blackboard all day," he said. "Others can learn a lot better if they are able to integrate what they learn in theory with practical experience."

With the supply-demand mismatch facing construction industry, Mr. Van Erden continued, "we can no longer let our youth stagnate. We need programs to help them bridge the period between school and the beginning of a meaningful career."

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