Guest Column

Business Journal cartoon hits, misses mark

July 15, 2016
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The editorial cartoon in the May 23 Grand Rapids Business Journal aptly highlights the shortage of students electing to pursue careers in the skilled trades and in construction specifically.

Unfortunately, it also reinforced a stereotype of skilled trades being a less popular or less desired career. This is one of the critical reasons construction jobs and apprentice programs go unfilled every year despite open positions, higher-than-average pay and long-term, stable career potential.

The cartoon (which shows two men in front of an Associated Builders & Contractors logo talking about “those kids” who go into skilled trades) points out what the GR Business Journal regularly reports on: the shortage of youth entering careers with Associated Builders & Contractors Western Michigan companies. While we represent tens of thousands of highly skilled contractors, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, steel workers and others, we are focused every day on finding more talent, filling more jobs and convincing the next generation of the boundless opportunities in construction.

The types of kids who have traditionally been construction-minded are mislabeled. It’s not “those kids” who are somehow different in talent or ability. Rather, it’s students who excel in math, science, architecture and engineering. These students and the professionals they become are just as motivated, just as smart, and just as skilled — but in different and oftentimes more technical ways.

I was one of “those kids.” I worked summers in the residential construction industry and loved the hands-on aspects of construction that offered the ability to accomplish tangible work every day; to see my efforts turn into something that I and the community could be proud of. While my original plan was to head to college — since our society’s standards subtly discouraged me from making this passion of mine a career — I decided that I’d become a teacher focused on industrial arts, which combined two of my favorite things: construction and kids.

However, after a summer working in commercial construction and seeing the array of opportunities I could take in this field, my career at Dan Vos Construction began. Nearly 40 years later, I’ve learned the industry inside and out, led countless projects to completion and am now an owner in the company that celebrated my passion and launched my career from the start.

According to a 2015 survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Construction Labor Market Analyzer, the current labor participation rate for all age groups is at a 37-year low of 62.8 percent. At the same time, new construction hires have decreased 14.5 percent since 2008. Despite fluctuating yet still high unemployment rates, annual job openings have increased 23.8 percent, indicating that there is an increasing demand in the construction industry, a decreasing supply and an expected shortfall of available craftspeople due to an aging workforce.

So, what’s the solution to this misperception about construction and skilled trades as a career? How are we to replace the 44 percent of our construction workforce that, according to a U.S. Census Household Data, is over the age of 45?

The answer is education. We as parents, adults and community members must change the narrative about skilled trades. We must recognize one of the core attributes of our state is our skilled workforce that builds, makes and creates things on par with any state in the country. And we need to start changing the trajectory of kids to make skilled trades not just a viable option but a preferred one.

The construction industry today is so much more than the image it’s had in the past, and ABC Western Michigan is working hard to counteract associated stereotypes. We all need to work to empower individuals to pursue a high-wage career, transform their interests into marketable skills, and triumph as professionals who have earned national industry certifications.

That is today’s construction industry and tomorrow’s opportunity for our youth.

John DeBlaay is vice president and project executive at Dan Vos Construction and is a member of the board of directors for Associated Builders & Contractors of Western Michigan.

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