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Green Building News

Construction Jobs Continue to Go Unfilled

A new report finds that high schools herd students toward a college-degree track even as work in the trades is plentiful and pays more

A variety of well-paying construction jobs face serious labor shortages in the years ahead, but high schools are still emphasizing a four-year university track for students, a Washington State study finds.
Image Credit: Bill Jacobs via Flickr

Thousands of well-paying construction jobs remain unfilled even as many high school students continue to be shepherded into four-year university programs that take longer than expected to complete and leave them deep in debt, a new report finds.

The Hechinger Report, which specializes in reporting on educational issues, focused on an audit of secondary career and technical education programs in Washington state. It found that high school graduates are being encouraged to enroll in four-year college programs even as the cost of a degree is going up and the financial return on a degree is going down. At the same time, many thousands of construction jobs that pay better and take less training are going begging.

There are now more than 3,200 slots open for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, pipe-fitters, and sheet-metal workers in Washington state. Many of these jobs pay more than the state’s average wage of $54,000.

The problem extends well beyond Washington’s borders. The Associated General Contractors of America says that 70% of U.S. construction companies have trouble finding qualified workers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects construction jobs nationally to increase by 11% through 2026, for a total of 746,600 new jobs. The bureau’s occupation outlook lists a variety of jobs that will pay $50,000 or more and that do not require a college degree. One study estimates there are roughly 30 million jobs in the U.S. that pay an average of $55,000 a year and do not require a bachelor’s degree.

Even so, many high school students “are not given the information or courses necessary to take advantage of these options,” the Washington auditor’s report said. Students should be encouraged to explore more career options as early as the 7th or 8th grade.

“There’s that perception of the bachelor’s degree being the American dream, the best bang for your buck,” Kate Blosveren Kreamer, deputy executive director of Advance CTE, an association of state officials who work in career and technical education, told The Hechinger Report. “The challenge is that in many cases it’s become the fallback. People are going to college without a plan, without a career in mind, because the mindset in high school is just, ‘Go to college.’”

Out-earning college friends

Garret Morgan, a 20-year-old Seattle-area high school graduate, has found an alternative to the four-year college path he tried and then abandoned. He and other young workers are enrolled in a training program for ironworkers that provides well-paying jobs now and will allow them to earn an associate’s college degree after four or five years.

In the mornings, Morgan attends classes at the Pacific Northwest Ironworkers shop near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. When not in class, Morgan works for employers in the area, where he gets $28.36 an hour plus benefits and a pension. He will make more than $50,000 a year while his friends from high school are still attending college classes.

“Someday maybe they’ll make as much as me,” Morgan said.

Nearly 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees were awarded nationally in 2015. Grads are more likely to have jobs and make more money than those without degrees, but the wage premium isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and the number of students who borrow money to attend college has increased to nearly 70%, with an average debt of $26,300.

Many college students also have trouble graduating on time. Three out of 10 high school graduates who go on to a four-year college programs at public universities are still there six years later, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says. The same is true of 20% of students enrolled in four-year private colleges.

Even so, said Chris Cortines, who co-authored the Washington State educational audit, there is an emphasis on the four-year college track.

“Being more aware of other types of options may be exactly what they need,” Cortines said. “When you look at the types of wages that apprenticeships and other career areas pay and the fact that you do not pay four years of tuition and you’re paid while you learn, these other paths really need some additional consideration.”


  1. Robert Opaluch | | #1

    Both alternatives can be worthwhile
    Personally I both did construction and went far with my education. Agree that many people would be better off in construction, especially something like electrician or finish carpenter to minimize disabilities. But there are good reasons to go to college IF you are intelligent AND motivated:
    -- College is more than just job training, especially liberal arts colleges and universities. Learning to write, speak, and think critically are important skills in many fields, including construction.
    -- Education is needed for an educated population in a democratic society, with the ability to change jobs as old industries die and new industries arise.
    -- Many of those in construction jobs will be functionally disabled by the time they are middle-aged. Back, knee and hand problems are commonplace and irreversible.
    -- In the near future, factory-based home component construction and robots are likely to replace our current “build in the field” methods.

  2. JC72 | | #2

    Good post Robert
    I basically agree and I'd like to add that the young workers of today face the prospect of having to acquire ever more specialization which does not always transfer into other fields when the spectre of automation takes away their profession at middle-age.

    As alluded to the solution to the labor shortage in construction is automation however the industry being cyclical is loathe to invest the necessary capital to make it happen.

    While there is a labor shortage now, the economy is at what is called the "end cycle" of economic expansion. A recession is going to happen, companies involved in the residential real estate are preparing for it.

  3. davorradman | | #3

    There is very little critical
    There is very little critical thinking and out of the box thinking and stuff like that in college.
    It's by vast majority just proving and signaling to the potential employer that you are a hard working conformist. At least that's what I increasingly see written about, and also my experience in a small european country. Engineers are better then most, but still.

    Since I was not such a person at the time, and now it's kinda late because, life, I would value a fine trade much more nowdays :)

  4. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #4

    Union jobs?
    Union apprenticeships are great, but by no means readily available, especially outside large cities. The example given, of the young guy who is in the NW Ironworkers union, is an exception. Where I live, in rural Maine, no one is starting at anywhere near $28 per hour, and benefits are meager, if there are any.
    Political hostility to unions isn't helping.

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Response to Stephen Sheehy
    While it's true that framers in northern New England aren't starting at $28 per hour, there are many electrical contractors looking to hire electricians, many plumbing contractors looking to hire plumbers, and many HVAC contractors looking to hire skilled workers.

    A few of my sons' friends have pursued blue-collar careers as electricians or diesel mechanics, and they are in a better financial position now than classmates who took loans to attend a four-year college, only to drop out for one reason or another.

  6. Expert Member

    Construction trades
    Dress them up anyway you like - say they are interesting, well-paying, necessary - but the truth is they are also hard work in tough conditions. The satisfaction that comes form the work is tempered by the physical toll it takes on your body. Despite advances in tools and automation, houses are still literally built on the backs of the people who work on them. Many people, for whatever reason, aren't willing or capable of taking that on.

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