The coronavirus pandemic – an unkind blow to the construction industry has only exacerbated a workforce shortage already simmering for years before Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered mandatory shutdowns last year.

“From our business and industry partners I hear the shortage is inhibiting their ability to grow and take on additional work,” said Michael Herrera, assistant director at Upper Bucks County Technical School in Bedminster Township.

A high priority industry, construction and its trades is essential for economic growth and flourishing communities, employing necessary skilled trades like plumbing, electric, masonry or carpentry. The sector offers steady work, sustainable wages, benefits and long-lasting career opportunities.

The sector continues to struggle to attract new entries (those aged 30 or under) at all levels, partly due to a lingering negative image, as well as by less interest by younger generations to work with their hands.

“What I’m hearing from the teachers…is that this area has been booming for the last four years and continues …we cannot graduate enough students to fill the available openings our industry partners have,” said Adam Lazarchak, executive director at Bethlehem Area Vocational Technical School.

Those hands-on jobs include carpentry, joinery, demolition, electric, plumbing, painting, as well as wall and floor work and scaffolding.

Commercial and industrial trades include welding, pipe fitting, steam fitting and steeplejacking. Steeplejacks are crafters who erect ladders or do work building or maintaining chimneys, church spires, smokestacks or towers.

“We know there is a critical skills gap and COVID-19 has widened that gap,” Herrera said.

He said many high school and young adult students favor what they perceive as highly paid technology jobs, during a time when such positions are extremely competitive. That mindset shrinks the potential workforce for trades.

“In the construction industry we’re seeing less competition for jobs because there are less people and more jobs” on offer, he said.

Persistent perceptions that construction is “all dirty jobs that don’t pay well and have no advancement” are misnomers in today’s construction industry.

From the field to the office, construction firms also employ workers in estimating, project management, administrative positions or construction management roles.

James DePietro, professor and mechanical/construction technology coordinator at Lehigh Carbon Community College said the stigma at the high school level over trades or technical career training versus pursuing a college degree “persists. It is better, but the attitude is [still] out there. And anyone who is building right now is short staffed.”

Debunking the myth

Construction methods are cleaner, and crews work more with prefabricated pieces than they did in past generations.

“The entire process has gotten more automated and better for the employee,” he said.

The industry has changed dramatically, too, keeping pace with digital technologies including equipment controlled with joysticks and the software that runs them.

“Everything works like a video game,” said Daniel E. Durden, CEO of Pennsylvania Builders Association in Camp Hill.

Debunking the idea of construction jobs as a dead end, DePietro said construction managers and developers prefer to “grow” talent from the field to move into management positions because skilled trade employees bring valuable experience and knowledge to their new roles, which cannot be gained any other way.

Time is a big part of the problem of filling job vacancies quickly. It takes for someone entering the market from scratch to “skill up,” according to Durden.

“We are seeing some migration from other industries, but learning a construction trade is time consuming,” he said.

Most trades jobs typically require from two to four years of classroom training to fill a position, and field work to fortify the experience.

That makes a migration from other industries hard hit by the pandemic such as restaurants and hospitality, challenging to see through in the short term.

While for decades construction has offered training programs for those who are incarcerated “it’s a catch-22” upon release for industry employers to hire them.

“We are required to do background checks and sometimes those individuals get excluded from some types of work,” Durden explained. Health care campuses and school districts prohibit those with a criminal history from being employed on their jobs. Outdoor site work and excavation companies often have more success hiring those who leave the penal system.

The competition

Competing for talent with construction companies are hospitals, health care centers, school districts and manufacturing campuses who also value and hire trades workers, often providing more in benefits or indoor work environments,” Durden said.

He said it is not uncommon to lose trade talent to “warmer climates and southern states” where snow, ice and freezing temperatures are less of a work issue. The cycle feeds itself – a worker shortage drives efforts to recruit at the schools to teach students about the very jobs needed to fill the shortage, Durden said.

Broader outreach efforts include workforce development investment, career and technical school marketing campaigns, retraining opportunities for those in other industries, and an emphasis on training military veterans are efforts aimed at repopulating programs.

“Demand is high, talent pool is low and there are lots of opportunities out there,” DePietro said.

Old-fashioned advertising campaigns could help, he said. Signs on facilities and [highway] billboards are a great resource because everyone sees them, according to DePietro.

While digital advertising may be the norm it may not reach the right targets – middle school students entering high school, or high school students considering what they’ll pursue after graduation.

“When you put a billboard up, then parents are going to see it and create those ‘kitchen table talks,’” he said.

At Upper Bucks, Herrera said guidance plans aim to span youngsters from Kindergarten through Grade 12 so career interests and appetites are being developed and encouraged at younger levels.

He said a video created for sixth graders was completed and a career camp last summer targeted Grades 2 to 8 to promote positive attitudes about trade careers and be more inclusive to women in non-traditional jobs.

“The more experience you can gobble up to enhance your learning will enhance your profession and enhance your life, DePietro said.