Why Do We Have A Skilled Trade Shortage?

Paul Pogue
Written by Paul Pogue
Updated January 16, 2017
Trade school inspection
Arne Duncan, then-U.S. Secretary of Education, visits the career and technical education program at the Harbor School in New York in 2013. Representatives of the trades have placed a renewed emphasis on technical education to guide high school students toward trade careers. (Photo by Andy Kropa/courtesy of U.S. Department of Education)

We may not have enough skilled workers to go around. How did it get to this point?

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Every day, the shortage in the skilled trades becomes more acute. According to numbers from the National Electrical Contractors Association, 7,000 electricians join the field each year, but 10,000 retire. And as job openings continue to increase without new laborers to fill them, the situation could impact every element of home services: wait times, work quality and cost.

An array of circumstances planted the seeds of the current trade shortage in the early 2000s. Several developments piled up to create the perfect storm that threatens to leave plumbing, electrical, carpentry and other skilled trades with a severe worker shortage in the years to come.

Industry experts say the trades lost nearly a million skilled workers during the recession that have yet to be replaced, and as older workers retire, the crunch will get even tighter.

Schooling, recession laid the groundwork

The elimination of shop class in high schools played a big role. For many students, this was their first exposure to the kind of hands-on experience that could ignite a career in a trade. “Taking shop and mechanical classes out of school cut off the pipeline,” says Dan Taddei, director of education and certification for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. “The No Child Left Behind Program forced them to shut down all those things and focus on college.”

The Great Recession compounded the problem. Countless contractors went out of business and never came back even when the economy rebounded. The trades lost a significant chunk of veteran workers and missed several years of potential worker training. Apprenticeships dropped sharply as contractors had to focus on struggling just to survive.

“The construction industry lost 1.5 million workers during the recession, and we’ve only brought back about 600,000,” says Rob Dietz, Chief Economist and Senior Vice President for Economics and Housing Policy for the National Association of Home Builders. “The median age of a construction worker right now is more than 40 years old. The long-term problem is, who’s going to be the next generation of construction workers?”

The family-based nature of many trades added to the issue. “A lot of plumbing companies are second-, third- or fourth-generation,” says Brenda Dant, executive director of the Indiana Plumbing Heating Coolers Contractors Association. “Sometimes they retire and the next generation doesn’t want to get into the business, and suddenly we’re short one more company.”

Social pressure pushed workers away from trades

Spenser Villwock, interim CEO of Independent Electrical Contractors, a national trade association, says social pressure for college to the exclusion of all else created a disincentive for new workers. “The message became that you need to have a college degree or you’re a lesser individual,” he says. “We aren’t exposing people to these opportunities, and the funding model in public schools supports college-or-bust.”

Even new workers are aging, according to Bill Irwin, executive director of Carpenters International Training Fund. “Right now, the average age of a carpentry apprentice is 27,” he says. “The ideal age is 19.”

He says cultural trends drew new workers away from the trades. “Carpentry has a black eye because there’s a perception that it’s a job you get if you’ve dropped out of high school or have just been released from jail,” he says. “Now, it’s becoming a field that older workers, especially those who want union benefits, are turning to, but the goal is to identify qualified workers much earlier. There’s a lack of good information about what we really do and who we really are out there.”

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