The Inside Outside Guys: Increasing the amount of skilled workers

Ken Calverley and Chuck Breidenstein
Special to The Detroit News

This question is just for the adults living in a home or apartment. In the past three years, have you had any difficulty finding skilled and trustworthy people to perform maintenance, repairs or building tasks in or around your home?

The answer is likely “yes” and there is a reason for it. During the Great Recession between 2007 and 2011 the construction industry lost more than 2 million workers and we are still paying the price for that loss.

The Midwest lost a higher proportion of those workers to southern climes and economies.

During the Great Recession between 2007 and 2011, the construction industry lost over 2 million workers.

Great companies with more work than they can handle struggle to find a balance between keeping the employees they have and not burning them out while trying to find and train additional staff to help carry the load.

Based on a report issued by the Associated General Contractors of America in 2018, 80% percent of construction firms were having difficulty hiring craft workers. Our conversations with professionals today would have us peg that percentage nearer to 100%. 

Adding to the problem is the fact that the current skilled labor force is getting older and moving to retirement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 32% of construction laborers are between the ages of 45-64.

The industry is responding in several ways.

More companies are specializing in specific trades or product applications. Where we used to be primarily an association of generalists who could perform most any task in or around a house, firms today are more likely to become expert in a single trade whether its roofing, siding, windows, trim carpentry, or some other phase of building.

This strategy seems to benefit all parties in a busy economy as the specialists we encounter are more likely to understand the entire system of their segment of the work. For instance, a great roofing company will be affiliated with a specific product manufacturer who provides training, certification, and integrated product lines. This leads to better, longer-lasting roofs with better warranty.

The industry is also turning to technology. Modular assemblies delivered to the site can reduce the need for manpower, and robots have been developed to complete repetitive tasks such as brick laying and rebar tying. Autonomous heavy equipment can perform excavation, grading and other labor intensive tasks.

Other businesses are shrinking their geographic territory as a way to maximize human resources. As an example, where a firm may have historically traveled up to an hour away from their office to job sites, it is becoming more common for those same companies to only travel half an hour depending on population density. But we still need more people. More young people.

To answer this, groups like the Home Builders Association of Michigan are working with high school counselors to integrate curriculum into our K-12 Education system that highlights construction as a career alternative. Executive Vice President for Government Relations Dawn Crandall has worked tirelessly during the past several years to get this message out.

One publication she cites states that “as of 2020, the average student loan debt among graduates who have debt is $37,500.” Bloomberg reported in 2021 that there were some 8.7 million Americans over the age of 50 who were still paying off college loans.

Crandall challenges us with a great question, “What if a young adult could step out of high school and into a career that not only provides training and education, but also pays them for their effort?”

For example, ZipRecruiter says the average entry-level electrical apprentice job pays around $36,000 per year and provides training toward licensing and certification. A journeyman, after four years on the job, will average over $57,000 per year. After four years in college, a graduate will average $50,000 per year and is likely carrying heavy debt.

The professionals in the Washtenaw County area saw this as an issue decades ago when they partnered with the local school district to create a building trades program that is unique to the system.

While other school districts have cut or eliminated funding for such programs, the Ann Arbor Student Building Industry Program created an agreement with the school district. You provide a teacher, students and transportation to the building sites, and we will provide building lots, materials and marketing for the homes built by the students.

A recent tour of the current build project led by course instructor Mark Valchine proved the success of the venture. The students were focused and self-directed as several crews worked together to accomplish various tasks, from hanging a door to cutting and applying trim to windows.

Valchine explained that the program was more than a training ground for future builders. “We stress concepts like teamwork, communication, safe work practices and leadership along with the skills training we provide.”

There are many great careers waiting for your sons and daughters — and maybe even for you.

Contact your local high school counselor or Crandall at the Home Builders Association of Michigan – (517) 322-0224 - for further information on career opportunities.

And if you still need those great contractors? Go to Insideoutsideguys.com.

For housing advice and more, listen to the Inside Outside Guys every Saturday and Sunday on News/Talk 760, WJR-AM, from 10 a.m. to noon or contact us at insideoutsideguys.com.