In Construction Worker Shortage, US Cities See Opportunity for Struggling Residents

In Construction Worker Shortage, US Cities See Opportunity for Struggling Residents

With the tightest labor market in decades, US employers in most industries are having a hard time filling roles. One sector that is especially hurting for workers is construction, where the labor shortage coincides with growing demand for housing and commercial development in American cities large and small. There’s a lot of work to be done, but not enough people to do it.

At the same time as unemployment is historically low, however, many Americans are underemployed, not looking for work, or lacking in marketable job skills. Some cities are now looking at the construction worker shortage as a chance to help improve the skills, incomes, and employability of underserved populations. The New York Times took a look at what these cities are doing in a recent feature:

Facing a tight labor pool, developers, public officials and community organizations are using commercial projects to provide residents with careers in construction. Together, they’re making an effort to recruit men and women from impoverished neighborhoods or challenged populations, such as former prison inmates. In booming markets like San Francisco, Denver and Miami, where gentrification is squeezing affordable housing, demand for these types of programs is growing.

The training programs are also occurring in smaller markets. In Milwaukee, for example, Gorman & Company, an apartment developer, has teamed up with city, state and community agencies to give former inmates on-the-job training restoring dilapidated, tax-foreclosed homes, which are then rented to low-income earners.

“There’s a very limited number of jobs that people re-entering society can do, but they are key to our success,” said Ted Matkom, president of the Wisconsin market for Gorman. “They can earn a good wage and are motivated.”

In some cases, contractors are required to meet local hiring targets, particularly on big projects that include incentives or are providing a public benefit. Cities and community organizations are recruiting and training workers to help builders meet the thresholds. In addition to classes, the programs typically provide tools, boots and other equipment to the candidates, and they pay for items such as apprentice application fees, child care and gas. Case managers at the organizations even make sure newly employed graduates receive wake-up calls.

Major home improvement retailers have also made investments in developing the US construction workforce and creating opportunities for underemployed Americans in this field. Last year, The Home Depot donated $50 million to a decade-long project to train 20,000 Americans, including veterans, returning military service members, high school students, and disadvantaged youth, as construction workers. Lowe’s partnered with the adult education company Guild Education to offer up-front tuition payments for its employees to enroll in training programs for skilled trades such as carpentry, plumbing, and appliance repair.

These initiatives are partly born out of strategic considerations at these companies about their future market, as construction contractors and skilled tradespeople make up a substantial segment of these retailers’ customer base. Yet like the city programs highlighted in the Times story, they also reflect the anticipated need to fill hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the construction sector in the coming decade. One sign of the shortage of skilled labor in particular is a growing trend, reported last year, of construction contractors offering signing bonuses to skilled craft workers.

Another significant challenge in sustaining and developing this workforce, however, is the relatively high risk of on-the-job injuries among them. A report issued by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health last year found that construction workers made up nearly one quarter of workers in the state who died from opioid-related overdoses between 2011 and 2015. The report attributed this to the high rates at which construction workers are prescribed opioid painkillers for injuries sustained at work.