posted on August 31, 2015 by Randy Ardis, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

My father, a Baby Boomer, was a self-made man with less than a high school education. He successfully ran his own specialty roofing company for over 34 years. My parents divorced when I was 6 years old so I didn’t get to see Dad often while growing up. So when he asked me to work with him for the summer before I went off to college, I quickly accepted. I did this while keeping a restaurant job in the evenings to earn extra money for school.

The summer went by quickly as two jobs took up most of my time. In the daytime I worked with Dad on estimate and sales calls, ordered and organized materials, and cleaned the offices and warehouse. In the evening I “slung” corn dogs and shook more freshly-squeezed lemonades than I care to count.

On a steamy summer day in August, Dad asked me to work with one of his “tar crews” for a week. I accepted the task and looked forward to the challenge. He warned me that it was very hot and tiring work. He described proper attire for the job, “Wear old tennis shoes, long pants, and long sleeves…and make sure it’s something you don’t want to wear again.” Understand that being on top of a roof, in SC, in August, with long pants and a long sleeve shirt — it’s a recipe for heat exhaustion!

I asked my father why he wanted me to work on one of the “tar crews.” His reply was very wise and heartfelt, “Son, I want you to experience the type of work I had to endure to get where I am today. For most of the men you‘ll work with, this is the best job they will ever have because of choices they made in their lives or because of their lack of education. I want you to get a taste of really hard work before you go off to college so you understand what you don’t want to do in life.”

His statement and the week of experience working rooftop mopping hot, smelly tar was enough to set my priorities straight. Or at least that’s what my perception was at the time.

Having experienced some unique changes in my 20+ years of HR experience, with a lot of this in Industrial and Construction-based workplaces, I have found that pursuing a more physically demanding career is not such a bad thing. In the Construction and Maintenance Industry, current trends estimate that one-sixth of the workforce will retire in the next 5-10 years. Compiled with the fact the workforce needed to complete current projects in the US is close to 6.9 Million and the available workforce is just over 5 Million, there will be a severe shortage of skilled workers in this field.

A perfect storm is brewing and it’s moving in fast…with supply shortages of this magnitude, skilled Construction and Maintenance workers will see rapid salary growth over the next decade in many of the trades. Conservative estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show trending in wage growth over the past two years for Construction workers to be growing 0.5% faster than all other workers combined. Industry data for the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast shows faster growth in certain segments of the trade. Some employers in this region have reported up to 10% increases in labor costs for specialized roles with an average floating closer to 6% in labor cost growth.  As industrial and residential projects get off the ground, we will see labor shortages that will force companies to turn down work which ultimately hampers building activity and economic growth.

So, what has happened to the labor pipeline? Over the years, many school districts decided to phase out vocational programs and traditional shop classes. This while many parents, mine included, have steered their children to pursue four-year degrees. There has also been a stigma of the work being physically demanding and unsafe. While the work is physically challenging, many improvements in worker safety has significantly reduced accidents and injuries over the past few decades.

Recent trends are seeing a reversal in this trend as school districts and trade schools are working quickly to enhance their Construction-related programs. Many forward-thinking companies that are heavily reliant on construction and maintenance workers, have established relationships with trade and vocational schools to provide financial support, equipment for training, and internship opportunities. By having these established pipelines, they will have some level of comfort in maintaining staffing levels.

One challenge for the industry is raising awareness and creating significant buzz to entice students and convince parents that Construction and Maintenance jobs are worthwhile. Programs such as SkillsUSA and Mike Rowe’s WORKS (Mike is the former host of the show Dirty Jobs) have brought this subject to the forefront while providing opportunities and financial support to the field. Mike Rowe’s program gives deserving students scholarships (averaging $15,000 each) to defer costs to enter programs that will educate them as future welders, mechanics, pipefitters, electricians and carpenters to fill gaps in the industry.

Mean compensation wages for the industry show entry-level opportunities for Laborers in the $17/hour range, Carpenters at $22/hour, Heavy Equipment Operators at $24/hour, and electricians at $26/hour. Once one works and gains experience, moving on to become a Project Manager or a General Manager will create pay opportunities in the $40+/hour range. Welders can start in the field around $50K/year and very quickly move into the six-figure range if they specialize in exotic metals or underwater welding.

With labor prices increasing, poaching of good workers is evident and often employers offer project bonuses and per diems to enhance base wages in an effort to increase retention. Construction companies will keep a good grasp of the market trends if they want to remain competitive. Recruiters in this field often find they have to foster relationships with a wide variety of programs and schools in order to keep requisitions filled.

As a parent, I have many aspirations for my children — attending college being one of them. Despite the conditioning my father instilled in me, I’m open to the fact that my son or daughter can make a great living in this industry. It’s really not a bad thing to get your hands dirty anymore!