by Mike Brewer, Brewer Companies, and Todd Sanders, Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce
The state of Arizona and our country are at a turning point. Our economies are growing, but our infrastructure is degrading and our ability to keep up with the pace of our growth is slowing. It’s time to face facts. When it comes to infrastructure, the United States is practically failing.
According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the country’s overall grade for infrastructure is a D.
In fact, 9.1 percent of bridges in the country are structurally deficient. When these bridges fail, they are increasingly expensive to replace. Every year, traffic delays cost $160 billion in wasted time and fuel. Transit, a key to reducing traffic, is struggling to expand despite efforts from cities and towns. It’s not just transit that needs to expand to meet demand—it’s also airports. We’ve all seen the impressive growth and modernization happening at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. In their most recent report, the ASCE stated that soon the majority of airports will experience holiday-like congestion on a weekly basis.
If the economy is growing and businesses are growing, then why is our infrastructure still a decade or more behind? Simple. Our community lacks the talent needed to fill critical construction and skilled-trade positions.
In Arizona, there are more than 10,000 vacant construction trade positions. In a 2016 HomeAdvisor survey, 93 percent of industry respondents said the labor shortage is preventing their businesses from growing over the next year.
This struggle to find qualified employees has real economic consequences for not only construction firms, but their customers and vendors as well. Talent gaps limit a state’s ability to grow—delaying key projects means slower economic growth.
If we expect our city, our region and our country to continue to thrive, then we need to work together—the business community, education institutions and others—to encourage individuals to launch their construction careers and learn a trade skill that will help build the foundation for our continued economic growth.
The construction industry in Arizona is working together to combat the stigma around construction jobs and highlight what a career in construction looks like in 2018. Through a collaborative process, we are bringing the business community, educators and government together to develop a multi-pronged solution to Arizona’s construction trade workforce crisis.
Construction Is More Than a Job
It’s time to showcase what a career in construction looks like in the 21st century. Stacks of neatly rolled up blue prints have been replaced with tablets loaded with digital blueprints. Aerial vehicles and drones are conducting site surveys. And sustainable building and LEED certification are driving the future of design and construction. All of these changes have not only created new roles for the construction industry, they are also changing the way traditional construction jobs are performed.
One of the main reasons these skilled-trade careers are vacant is because the construction industry isn’t discussed as a viable pathway for people of all career aspirations. Arizona has more than 10,000 empty positions, waiting for someone willing to learn a skill and build a career.
Today, construction career pathways possess all the qualities that most people look for when searching for meaningful employment: high starting pay, on-the-job training, benefits, job availability and growth potential.
It’s time to dispel the perception that construction jobs aren’t careers. Construction is not only a viable career pathway, it provides a multitude of opportunities to suit all interests.
Many positions in construction require highly skilled people who are highly compensated, given that their specialized skills are in high demand. To put it succinctly, many of today’s construction industry employees are highly sought after community contributors. And that’s how we should be talking about them.
For too long our society has downgraded the value and importance that skilled-trade workers play in our economic future. These vital careers deserve respect and to be highlighted as solid career pathways for any individual.
Appealing to the Masses
We need to band together to target potential talent for this industry—but it goes beyond that.
In an Associated General Contractors of America survey, 86 percent of contractors reported they were struggling to fill hourly craft jobs or salaried professional positions. Why? Because people aren’t entering the construction industry at the same rate they had in the past.
According to Go Build America, for every five people who retire from the trades, only one replacement is being trained in apprenticeship programs. On average, tradespeople in the industry are 47 years old. And only 10 percent of the workforce is female.
A key challenge to filling Arizona’s 10,000-plus empty construction positions is reaching out to potential talent—students interest in vocational education, women and individuals stuck in a job with no progression that are looking to start a career with growth potential and opportunities to earn while they learn.
An entry-level construction job can lead to a fruitful career. More importantly, the average wage for construction trades is $49,000 per year, which is higher than Arizona’s average salary across all industries. Construction jobs represent more than just a wage, they represent opportunity. What’s more impressive is that nine out of 10 individuals who complete an apprenticeship program are employed.
In fact, many construction jobs only require minimal training and certifications. For those with the desire to grow their career, there is plenty of opportunity. Through additional certificates and four-year degree programs, many transition from hands-on work to leading an entire construction site with formal project management training.
It’s not just students and potentials workers we have to convince—it’s their families as well.
It is no secret that construction careers are not necessarily attractive, nor are they viewed as viable lifelong career options. If you ask parents if they would encourage their children to explore a career in this industry, they would most likely respond with a resounding “no!” We must educate everyone—students, parents, teachers and counselors—that these jobs can lead to a successful and fulfilling career for anyone.
Increasing Pathways to Quality Training Programs
We must ensure that individuals interested in a construction career have easy and accessible exposure to the industry and to training opportunities.
In an effort to better align training opportunities with employers’ needs, the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation has gathered leading construction companies to address their talent needs differently, through a collective approach. The Construction Workforce Collaborative is applying the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management model to look at the issue from a supply chain perspective to craft a data-driven solution.
Through this collaborative approach, employers are leading the conversation and connecting with education institutions.
Whether it’s Joint Technical Education Districts or community college trades programs, there are numerous well-developed training programs for prospective tradesmen and tradeswomen. And businesses are working with these institutions to attract individuals—especially high school students and graduates—to these training opportunities.
Unfortunately, several of these training programs lack the students and resources to train future construction and trade-skills people at the level needed. We need to ensure our schools, especially those specializing in career and technical education, have a solid pipeline of students and the appropriate resources—such as equipment and teachers—to educate and train students interested in construction trade careers.
If we are to move our economy forward, the business community needs to work to promote these education and training opportunities in the construction industry at all levels.
So, What’s the Message?
It all comes down to what those of us in the industry already know—construction jobs are more plentiful, profitable, respectable and safer than ever. These careers are building our cities and growing our economies. The construction industry is not a “last resort.” It is a career path built on the values of hard work, pride and honor.
Yes, these jobs are hard. You will get your hands dirty. But even in year one, you will earn a wage that will allow you to support yourself and your family. This is a career path that not only will allow you to avoid student debt, but will give you the opportunity to earn while you learn.
We Are Building Arizona Together
With a multi-faceted approach, business leaders can work with community members to build Arizona’s construction and skilled trades workforce. By changing the conversation, targeting key talent opportunities and bridging the gap between employers’ needs and training opportunities, we can create the workforce needed to sustain our economic growth. It won’t happen overnight, but anything worth building takes time. If we start today, we can ensure a sustainable talent pipeline for our construction companies and ensure Arizona’s uninhibited economic growth.
It can happen in your community, too. I urge construction leaders in other areas to engage with a convening organization, such as your chamber of commerce, to bring together industry leaders, education partners and elected officials to begin solving complex issues. If the message and the goal are to come together for the greater good of the community, then leaders will be eager to engage.
Our leaders in Phoenix are willing to serve as thought leaders and mentors to anyone seeking to implement similar initiatives in their communities. We encourage you to connect with us and allow us to help strengthen your communities as well.
Let’s work together. Let’s build on our region’s success. Let’s be the place where people and companies want to do business.
Mike Brewer is the CEO of the ASA-member company, Brewer Companies & Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, Phoenix, Ariz. Todd Sanders is the president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.