There is no longer any doubt that the construction industry has emerged from the long downturn that began more than seven years ago. That’s good news indeed.
But, there’s some troubling news, too, depending on whom you ask—and where they’re working (or not).
By this spring, construction spending had reached its highest level since 2008. All major construction categories—private nonresidential, residential and public—made solid gains, and the private segments appeared poised to maintain growth throughout the year. By the beginning of summer, construction unemployment had fallen to its lowest since 2001, while construction employment held steady at the highest level in six years.
However, the Associated General Contractors of America, the organization that brought us this information, also said that construction firms are having a hard time finding enough qualified workers to meet growing demand in many parts of the country.
“Too few students are even getting exposed to the idea that working in construction is a viable and high-paying career option,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer. “Until officials take steps to rebuild what was once a robust vocational education system in this country, there won’t be enough construction workers to complete projects in a timely fashion.”
AGC has recommended a variety of solutions, including beefing up technical and vocational education in conjunction with trade schools and community colleges and instituting regulatory and legislative changes to make it easier for private construction firms to own and operate their own training programs, the way our organized sector does.
Last month, I wrote about the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee’s 21st Century Workforce legislation directing the Secretary of Energy to establish an education and training program for energy- and manufacturing-related jobs. The Department of Labor (DOL) has an ambitious $100 million plan of its own and plans to solicit employers and potential workers to develop apprenticeship programs for nearly a thousand occupations for which employers might otherwise hire foreign workers. Existing programs that are sponsored jointly by labor-management teams are the model here, as well.
Well, all I can say to the DOL is “Good luck with that.” I cannot imagine what it would take to create a thousand effective apprenticeship programs for a thousand different industries. I do not think the DOL can, either. The organization I represent has experience training only one industry, and that costs $100 million every single year.
NECA and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) brought forth the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC) in 1941 to develop and deliver necessary training. Working with community colleges, trade schools and the like, we now have more than 300 IBEW-NECA facilities in the United States and Canada offering what are, in effect, three-, four-and five-year degrees for, respectively, voice/data/video (VDV) technicians, electricians and linemen with a very high graduation rate. More than 350,000 electrical apprentices have graduated to journeyman status through these programs. With NECA-IBEW investing in workforce training, it does not cost the taxpayers one red cent.
The students don’t have to pay, either. Our apprentices earn a solid income while they learn in programs that combine paid, on-the-job training with classroom instruction. They can even earn college credits.
Our workforce development programs are getting better all the time. For one thing, now that the NJATC has transitioned into the Electrical Training ALLIANCE, instruction includes core curriculum that establishes the foundation of skills necessary to be a NECA-IBEW journey-level worker and advances opportunities for blended learning.
Training centers that combine classroom teaching and online courses are in the best position to prepare electrical workers to meet local demands, whether the local market is involved in the automotive industry, refining natural gas or building high-end condominiums. Our productive workers are trained to do everything from routine wiring to commissioning major, state-of-the-art green electrical projects. They understand the power of electrical work and how to harness power safely.
It seems that everyone is talking about apprenticeship these days. Those of us who experienced the best there is can tell legislators and regulators that there is no need to reinvent the wheel and every need to protect established, effective apprenticeship programs in the construction industry from unnecessary impediments. I am mighty proud of our NECA-IBEW electrical training program.
After all, we know what works—thousands of technicians, electricians and linemen trained the NECA-IBEW way!