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Green Building News

Collaboration Aims to Get More Skilled Labor Into Construction

An online educator and an industry-backed job-placement and career-building agency join forces

Among the online course offerings from M.T. Copeland is this one on building a freestanding deck. The instructor is Mike Guertin, a GBA contributor and an editorial advisor to Fine Homebuilding magazine. Image courtesy M.T. Copeland.

An organization that offers online training and another that promotes vocational training and job placement have announced a joint effort designed to expand the pool of skilled labor in the residential construction industry.

The collaboration is between the Building Talent Foundation, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., and M.T. Copeland Technologies, a startup launched in 2020 that markets online courses on topics ranging from cabinetry and drywall to deck-building and plumbing.

By combining their specialties, the two organizations hope to give aspiring workers in the construction trades a better shot of landing a job while providing construction companies better access to skilled workers who are now in short supply.

M.T. Copeland has 29 courses available on its website and another 10 in the pipeline that should be ready in another month, according to CEO Gabe Jewell. Prices run from less than $100 to more than $200 per course. A three-hour course on how to build Shaker-style cabinets, for example, is $75, while a 4-1/2-hour plumbing course on the basics of cutting and joining pipe is $225. Instructors are professionals in their fields, and include Jordan Smith, the CEO of Austin, TX, design/build firm Smith House Company, and Mike Guertin, a Rhode Island builder and author who is well known to GBA and Fine Homebuilding audiences.

Building Talent Foundation (BTF) lists 20 construction firms as founding partners, including Beazer Homes, Lennar, Pulte Homes, Meritage Homes, and Toll Brothers—some of the biggest names in residential construction. According to its website, BTF works with young people in schools and their communities to encourage their interest in a career in residential construction. The foundation also says it works to advance a UN strategic development goal designed to foster economic growth and “decent work for all.”

One of the foundation’s initiatives is called Jobs to Build, which is a website where job seekers can search openings by state and by specialty at no cost.

“Building Talent Foundation connects skilled people with employment opportunities so there’s a natural match, we think,” Jewell said. “Folks can come to our website and if they go through an educational program and are looking for employment, we can connect them to opportunities that the Building Talent Foundation provides. On the flip side, if someone comes to the BTF website and is looking for a job but finds they don’t have all the skills they need to be competitive or qualify for those jobs, they can refer those people to us and hopefully we can get them the right skills.”

The announcement comes as the construction industry struggles to find enough skilled labor to fill job openings during a building boom. According to a CNN report last summer, the construction industry slowed to a crawl during the early days of the pandemic, shedding more than 1 million workers. Since then, nearly 80% of those workers have returned, but the industry as a whole is still down 238,000 workers from pre-pandemic levels.

Foundation CEO Branka Minic said shortages of skilled tradespeople are “across the board,” affecting all regions of the country and nearly every trade.

“What is more frightening is that 40% of the existing workforce is supposed to retire by 2031,” she said. “So not only are we missing hundreds of thousands of people, we are also going to bleed talent out over the next couple of years just because people are retiring. This is a really serious problem. No matter how many people we bring to the attention of employers, they want more. The market does not have a supply that meets demand, at this point.”

The foundation took part in hundreds of school events last year in an effort to interest young people in the possibilities of a career in the skilled trades. Asked what’s proving to be the biggest impediment, Minic replied without hesitation, “parents, absolutely parents.”

She recalled one classroom visit where she spoke with 47 students about the possibility of signing up for vocational training. Many of the students said they were interested—not completely sold on the idea, but interested just the same. When the students returned to the class after a weekend at home with their parents, just three of them signed up. “These parents,” Minic said, “they just don’t get it.”

But there are bright spots, too. Minic shared the story of Tiffany, a part-time retail worker whose husband died of Covid. On $14 per hour, Tiffany was supporting herself and her two sons. With the foundation’s help, she earned an HVAC certificate and was placed with a company on a training wage of $16 per hour. Two months later, she went to $30 per hour and was given the use of a company vehicle. Plus, Minic says, she loves what she’s doing.

The need keeps growing

Associated Builders and Contractors, an industry trade group, estimates that 1 million more workers will be needed over the next two years to enable the industry keep up with demand, CNN reported. A variety of factors have conspired to make the problem worse, including an aging workforce and the disappearance of traditional shop classes in U.S. schools that once helped young people learn manual skills.

One challenge has been to convince young people that a career in the trades can be personally rewarding as well as financially attractive.

“The trades face a significant perception problem,” the foundation claims. “Young people looking for work view construction jobs as dirty and difficult, with little opportunity for upward mobility. This is tied to shifts in the jobs that society appears to value—jobs without a college degree are perceived as lesser. In interviews with builders and tradespeople, the clear and primary obstacle to new recruits is a persistent lack of interest in the trades among young people looking for work. In fact, according to a recent study of young people entering the workforce, only 3% want to work in the trades.”

However, labor projections for the next decade indicate that careers in the skilled trades will be safer than other parts of the labor market, and young tradespeople can enter the job market with good salaries and without the debt that many young college grads are saddled with.

Jewell is betting that a more inspiring presentation of the possibilities as a skilled tradesperson will help. He’s had plenty of practice. Before he co-founded M.T. Copeland, Jewell was a supervising creative producer at MasterClass, a website that offers online classes taught by creative luminaries in several fields—music, writing, business, and the culinary arts among them.

At M.T. Copeland, Jewell overseas a core team with experience in producing this type of educational video. They hire small crews around the country to film segments, making stops in places as diverse as Vancouver, Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts. Filming takes a few days, and working the video into a finished product takes another couple of months.

“We believe these are really cool and beautiful professions,” he said. “We’re showing them in a cinematic light, taught by people who are really working in these professions and are successful and passionate about what they do.”

Minic also believes that casting vocational careers as inspiring as well as financially rewarding is essential to growing the number of people who want to become electricians and carpenters and HVAC technicians.

“We need to do that reframing,” she said. “I don’t want to hear anyone talk about a labor shortage. That’s like a cement shortage. We need to talk about talented people. We need to talk about talent. Not labor. That’s wrong. We change what comes out in our presentations to really build a different image of these careers. That’s how I think we will change the game.”

Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at GBA and Fine Homebuilding magazine.


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