According to trade group Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), the construction industry faces a skilled labor shortage of 650,000 workers in 2022.
Skilled labor demand continues to rise as workers have quit faster than they were laid off or discharged. In March, the number of unfilled job openings rose to nearly 400,000.
ABC chief economist Anirban Basu said the labor data shows a “market that continues to be strong and an economy that continues to have forward momentum.” Basu added that the labor shortage likely would contribute to continued pay increases as contractors compete for talent. The result will be higher construction costs in the coming months.
Though the labor shortage looks to worsen in the short term, area industry executives recently launched an event to help draw the next generation to the workforce.
Nearly 1,100 people, including almost 900 students and teachers of area high schools, attended the Build My Future event hosted in April at The Jones Center in Springdale. The event, led by executives of Multi-Craft Contractors in Springdale, was based on a similar one in Springfield, Mo.
“Coming out of COVID, we were moved to say, ‘It’s time for Northwest Arkansas to have its Build My Future,’” said Brian McHaney, director of learning and development for Multi-Craft Contractors. “We are in a good place where we can showcase this … Most importantly, the students would appreciate the inside, first-hand experience from the professionals that do the work day in and day out.”
McHaney said the event raises awareness of the available industry opportunities and that they aren’t the same as they were in the past.
“This is going to showcase technology, innovation and then the hard work that comes behind that makes all of this come together … so they can see … how many different companies are available to them and opportunities that are out there where they can make an honest living,” he said.
He added that events like this can help build trust that “our industry is the go-to industry.” Industry opportunities are also available for those who attend college as graduates can transition to project manager positions.
“We believe this will benefit us so that there is more of a trusting relationship with the various industries that are centric to construction or support the industry as a whole so that these young students can be prepared and go, ‘Hey, I can connect with that group. And I know where I will go if I go to that group,’” he said.
McHaney said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) participated in the programming to highlight the importance of industry safety. Also during the event, students completed hands-on projects and learned about carpentry, flooring, heating and cooling and fire suppression systems, and the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Other event features included virtual reality for welding and aerial platforms.
“We had a full home that you could walk inside … and see all the electrical and plumbing components and how it all works,” he said.
McHaney said event organizers want to remain in touch with schools, support those developing career technical education programs and bring teachers and students to the various businesses to show them what each company does.
“It’s about staying connected and supporting the students [and] teachers throughout the year to maintain that connectivity which will then build a heavy recruiting source for the industry,” he said. “We all know that there’s a huge talent gap … But most importantly, we all know that we have a talent pool in Northwest Arkansas that we need to foster and maintain, and we don’t need it going somewhere else.”
Build My Future is expected to become an annual event, with the next one set for April 5, 2023, at The Jones Center.
Bill Roachell, president of the ABC Arkansas chapter, said he expects attendance to rise to 1,800 next year. The organization sponsored the event and recruited area members to participate. He said that a central Arkansas event is in the works for next spring.
“They’re helpful to the industry by showing kids what’s available in construction,” he said. “I think there’s still that perception out there … that construction is just a dirty old job: You’re digging a ditch, and we’ve got to break that perception.”
The event allowed students to use computers for modeling and showed students interested in gaming that they could use their skills in construction, he said. Also, he noted that the Multi-Craft Contractors booth showed students fabricated metal that folded into dice or a small soccer ball.
‘SKY’S THE LIMIT’
Roachell said that after COVID, many people left their jobs, not only in construction but in other industries, too. The challenge has been getting people to return to the workforce.
He said events like Build My Future allow the organization’s members to connect with students through hands-on activities and tell them about the available careers.
“Once you get your foot in the door, the sky’s the limit,” he said. “Maybe you start as a carpenter’s helper, but you show you’ve got a good work ethic, you show up on time and do the right thing — you can move into other areas within the company.
“Sometimes, these kids aren’t coming to us, so we’ve got to figure out ways to go to them. And I think Build My Future is the perfect way to do that.”
Jerrie Price, project coordinator for H.I.R.E.D. (Helping Individuals Reach Employment Dreams), took students from area school districts to the event and noted that one company hired a student that day for a paid internship.
“It was so engaging, so fun for the kids, so hands-on that they were able to get a feel for what it might be and why to work in the industry,” she said. “Build My Future changed the trajectory for a student that otherwise probably wouldn’t have made that connection.”
Sheila Burroughs, director of workforce development for Nabholz, said the company hired a student at the event for its youth apprenticeship program. The student, who started in May, will work full-time in the summers and part-time during the school year.
“Our theory is that if they stay with us, even part-time capacity in fall and spring, they’ll be more likely to convert to a full-time employee upon graduation and their 18th birthday,” Burroughs said. “This helps keep them on and gives them good pay.”
She said the youth in the program like to see a project to completion, and one might take two or three years.
Aside from the student hired that day, Burroughs explained that the event likely wouldn’t immediately impact the company. But she noted the importance of exposing youth to the industry, which could lead to great careers.
“Hopefully, we can inspire those young people to know that construction is a noble career and a career that will take care of them financially, help feed their family and give them a nice life,” she said. “I don’t know that they knew those things before, but this is our first step to give them that overview of what construction is … I hope that they can connect that to a noble career aspiration for themselves.”
This year, the Nabholz booth hosted student teams who worked together to build wooden benches. The students donated the benches to the schools.
While the weather didn’t cooperate this year, Burroughs said Nabholz looks to bring its heavy machinery for the event again next year.
“We are coming back,” she said. “We liked the event. It was nice to put on one really big event and bring a lot of schools to us. That was very helpful to us versus going to 27 schools bringing a smaller exhibit.”