A plague of skilled workforce development issues

As the workforce gap soars to post-Great Recession highs, finding skilled trade workers is among the greatest challenges facing Ohio builders. At the same time, the news features stories about mounting college debt burdens incurred by recent graduates who cannot find jobs that pay enough to both start a life and pay off college loans. Is there a “win-win” that addresses this scenario?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of unfilled construction-sector jobs increased to more than 193,000 this year, while unemployment dipped to just 4.9 percent; and even lower in Ohio at 4.7 percent.

That gap between open jobs and available workforce can be devastating to the home building/construction industry, which is growing nationally. The issue is compounded as an aging skilled trade workforce enters retirement, and fewer young workers enter the industry.

Outcomes, not test results

The solution lies not just in the building industry. It requires a cultural paradigm shift in our communities.

Prior to 1990, vocational education or trade schools were an important part of an education system that focused more on employment outcomes than test results. Today, however, school systems concentrate on meeting federal- and state-mandated targets, or “grade cards,” that are measured primarily by testing outcomes.

A career in the skilled trades, such as plumbing, carpentry or electrical work, was once viewed as a respected occupation.

Yet today, young people entering the workforce are rarely encouraged by educators, parents and other mentors and influencers to consider a skilled trades career path. High school students are pushed into college, regardless of whether it’s appropriate for their personality, learning style, finances or employment goals.

Alternative career paths

Consider the case of my industry colleague, Darin Hilt. He started out doing odd jobs, such as landscaping and carpentry, to help pay for college. Hilt’s work ethic and dedication led his informal handyman business to taking off.

It became clear his original plan to attend veterinary school was replaced by work he found rewarding, lucrative and plentiful.

He went to work for several major homebuilders, eventually landing with P&D Builders. Hilt prospered at P&D and ultimately was offered an ownership position in the luxury home building company.

Today, he readily shares his story with those seeking an alternative path. Anyone who has drive and dedication can forge a career with a six-figure salary — without a four-year college education.

Not for everyone

In order to meet the demands of the construction industry, and the reality that, a traditional college track isn’t the best option for many, secondary schools need to realign their thinking and programs.

School systems must partner with leaders in these growth industries. But culturally, we must shift our thinking as well. Not everyone should go to a four-year university and emerge wearing a suit and tie. Skilled trade workers are exactly that: skilled.

By looking at the building industry as offering lucrative, abundant and fulfilling professions, and by helping young people prepare to step into these jobs, we offer them viable careers that come with flexibility, no college loans and long-term sustainability.

Jim Hilz is the Executive Director of the Building Industries Association of Central Ohio. As leaders in the housing industry, BIA is dedicated to protecting the industry while promoting ethical business practices and standards. It supports the community and its members through professional development, legislative outreach, industry promotion and charitable efforts.