Construction professionals build our nation – literally. I Build America (IBA) works to give these men and women the recognition they deserve. The national movement instills pride in the construction industry, educates the public about the value of construction, and recruits the next generation of construction professionals.
Mike Rydin launched IBA after he noticed a sharp downturn in the number of young people entering the industry. As the founder and CEO of HCSS, a leading software supplier for heavy construction projects, Rydin saw the need to revamp the public’s perception of the industry firsthand. When talking to HCSS customers, “he kept hearing repeatedly that they were having difficulty hiring the next generation of construction professional,” says IBA Manager Susanna Jakubik. “There’s plenty of work to go around and many older employees to do the work, but they didn’t have younger employees coming in. So Mike and his team created I Build America to start that conversation and to instill a sense of desire to join the industry.”
The abundance of jobs in horizontal and vertical construction throughout the nation simply is not enough to entice young people. Eighty percent of construction firms have reported they are having trouble filling positions, IBA reports, and this could create an ongoing challenge well into the future. “They’re having a people shortage,” Jakubik says. “Skilled laborers are becoming harder and harder to find and construction companies are aging out. The average age right now of a construction worker in the U.S. is forty-two.”
IBA is at the forefront of the issue. “Our goal is to try to fill that funnel of skilled workers to lower that [average] age and to keep people in the industry longer,” she says.
Why did the industry’s labor shortage develop in the first place? One significant factor has been an educational and cultural shift away from the trades. “The value of a career in the trades has kind of diminished over the years and fewer students are attracted to vocational training in high school,” Jakubik says. She explains that some students see construction as “a fallback career” while others “feel pressure from their parents, their teachers, even their friends to seek a college degree.”
Ms. Jakubik taught high school for a decade and witnessed the pressure to choose an academic path firsthand. Collegiate expectations hit hard by the 11th grade, when many students still aren’t sure what future is best for them. “Colleges are having early admissions,” she says. “So junior year is when the counselors really crunch down on the kids.” The question is not will you go to college, but where will you go to college. “Over the past ten or fifteen years, college has become an emphasis in the high schools and kids are really just pushed to do it without really thinking, ‘should they do it?’”
As a general rule, guidance counselors and other influencers do not teach young people that a career in construction can be more lucrative than a career that requires a college degree. “The students and the people that are influencing them don’t even realize that you can go to a two year welding school and then, by the time you’re twenty-four, you can be making great money,” Jakubik says. “They don’t understand; they think it’s blue collar, it’s dirty, it’s dangerous.”
The truth is that today’s construction professionals often out-earn the white-collar influencers that steer young people away from the trades. And the income comes without the burden of student loans. “At the age of eighteen, nineteen, they can be making really, really good money,” Jakubik says. “They can start to get some freedom and can start to pursue hobbies, or additional education, or raise a family.”
As an example, she remembers a high school student named Victor that she taught several years ago. “He was an awesome kid” who felt overwhelmed by the external pressure to go to college. Jakubik counseled him on his options and encouraged him to follow the best path for his interests and skills. Victor loved to work with his hands and recognized that college was not the right fit. Instead, he attended a two-year trade school to learn welding. “Then he liked it so much he went and got an additional certification for underwater welding, which is really, really valuable in the oil and gas industry,” Jakubik says.
Victor visited Ms. Jakubik a few years later to share his success. “He was making nearly $200,000 a year,” she recalls. “He was just so excited – just grinning ear to ear.” Victor had found his niche – and only has to work six months out of the year. The rest of the year he spends with his wife and young children.
According to IBA’s most recent statistics, the average pay for a construction employee in America is $60,700 – 10 percent higher than the average of all other industries. And women are paid 94 percent as much as men for the same construction job, compared to 81 percent in other industries. Because of the work shortage, this money is relatively easy to access. As of March 2019, there were almost 364,000 jobs available within the construction industry, IBA reports.
In addition to the money, construction professionals get to enjoy the satisfaction of building their communities. It is intrinsically rewarding to create something lasting that will positively impact people. From homes and schools to roads and bridges, construction professionals get to see the fruits of their labor, whether it is to provide shelter, educate the next generation, or facilitate travel through bustling cities. “It’s a great contributing factor to the modern way of life,” Jakubik says.
Certainly, some parents are concerned that construction is too difficult and dangerous for their child to consider as a career, but this is yet another industry misconception. “It’s an evolving industry; it’s not just your grandpa’s construction industry.” At the forefront of today’s evolving industry is a focus on health and safety. “Safety culture is the big, big thing, to the point where most midsized construction companies – and of course, all the large ones – have someone whose job is to focus on safety.” These professionals work fulltime to keep the crew safe and maintain a safe jobsite.
IBA works to dispel the myths about the construction industry so that young people have the chance to consider it as a viable and lucrative option for their future. “What we’re trying to do is educate all of those people – the students and their influencers – on why construction is a good career,” Jakubik says. IBA’s website provides a wealth of material on the subject, including a motivational blog, information on career paths in construction, and videos that give voice to successful construction professionals. Links to construction companies and industry organizations give young people a place to start when considering internships or a first job. An online store sells branded apparel, mugs, hats, and stickers to construction professionals. “It helps show their pride in the industry and also helps give us an income stream,” says Jakubik. “We can then turn around and carry more resources that we can then send back out to construction companies.”
In addition to education, IBA supports young people who have decided to pursue a career in construction. “Once we convince the next generation to head into the industry, we want to make it easy for them to do that.” Starting this year, IBA will award $1,000 scholarships to high school seniors who plan to attend a trade school for a construction career. The team is currently reaching out to schools in four key states – Texas, Florida, California, and Arizona – where construction is particularly big at the moment.
The team decided to approach the scholarship application process a little differently than is standard for academic scholarships. Traditionally, scholarship applicants have to write an essay and prove their worth through SAT scores and a high GPA; IBA recognizes that smart, talented candidates for a construction scholarship do not always fit that traditional academic mold. “School may not be their thing,” Jakubik says. Instead of reviewing grades and arbitrary academic test scores, the team will ask candidates to write about why they want to go into construction. IBA wants to know what inspired these young people, and awards scholarships to the most passionate candidates.
To be sure, the construction industry faces an uphill battle to overcome its pervasive labor shortage. Fortunately, IBA has already met with success in tackling the issue. By recognizing the value of construction professionals and encouraging the next generation to take advantage of the benefits of a construction career, IBA will continue to make a difference in the industry – and in the lives of individuals eager for promising career opportunities.