- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

The number of students in Arlen Crabb’s automobile classes at Lincoln Technical Institute in Columbia, Md., fluctuates with the economy.

“If the economy is down, then we have a large influx of students,” says Mr. Crabb, automotive instructor at the Maryland trade school for the past 10 years.

A downturn in the economy leads to laid-off workers looking for a career change, he says.

However, a short-term influx of students is not enough to counter the shortage of workers faced by the automobile and construction trades, according to trade associations, unions and schools that teach the trades.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that between 2002 and 2012, 1 million new jobs will be created for workers in the skilled trades, an increase of 15 percent. The trades need to fill 240,000 positions each year to keep up with growth demands and replace workers who retire or leave the industry, according to the BLS.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) estimates that within the next decade, 18 million new homes and apartment units will need to be built to meet the housing demands brought on by population growth.

“The construction industry is telling us that even today, they cannot find the skilled workers they need and are very concerned about finding a pipeline of new workers,” says Emily Stover DeRocco, assistant secretary for employment and training at the Department of Labor.

The cause for the shortage of workers is multifaceted, those watching the industry say.

For one, the industry has an image problem, Mrs. DeRocco says.

In the past, construction work required brawn and little brainpower, an image that persists, she explains. However, today’s construction workers need skills in mathematics, computer sciences and logistics and, if working in construction management, in engineering, she says.

“A laptop is just as common on a job site as a hard hat,” Mrs. DeRocco says.

Construction has an image of requiring dirty, hard and unsafe work, says Frederick “Fred” Humphreys, president and chief executive officer of NAHB in Northwest.

“The last few years, people are overly enamored with high-tech careers. That seems to be the buzzword,” Mr. Humphreys says.

The number of workers wanting to fill construction jobs has been declining steadily in the past 20 years, says Christine Hess, director of careers in construction at Associated Builders and Contractors, a membership organization based in Arlington.

“The economy as a whole has changed. Information technology and telecommunication industries now are part of the everyday fabric,” Ms. Hess says. “It becomes another area that recruits a work force that would otherwise go to construction or some other industry.”

Women, in particular, are taking fewer jobs than men in construction and other trades. In 2004, women held 9.7 percent of construction jobs, according to BLS.

“The number of women going into trades has dropped. It’s quote, unquote nontraditional. The flip side of that is there are lots of opportunities,” Ms. Hess says.

In the automobile industry, the shortage of technicians is attributed to increased demand for automobiles, the number of new dealerships opening and changes being made in car design, Mr. Crabb says.

“The technology has taken the car to such a level that if you don’t have the computers and proper testing equipment, you’re not going to figure out what’s wrong with the car,” he says.

Parents also contribute to the shortage of trades workers. They want their children to attend college and excel beyond what they did in their own careers, says John Heffner, executive director for training and educational services for Associated General Contractors of America, an Alexandria-based association that represents 33,000 people from commercial, industrial and highway firms and related companies.

Parents want to see their children in white-collar jobs working in offices, not working with their hands in manual labor, Mr. Heffner says.

“It’s not a construction question. It’s not an automobile question,” Mr. Heffner says. “It’s a cultural question.”

Complicating the issue is the shortage of trainers, says Fred Parsels, director of the Welder Testing and Training Institute, which has campuses in Woodbridge and Culpeper. The opening of new training schools is lagging behind the growth seen in the construction industry during the past four to five years, he says.

“There is more of a need for welders and crafters, but training schools haven’t kept up with it,” Mr. Parsels says. “We are seeing more and more people interested in doing blue-collar things.”

Students and career changers can earn certifications, two-year associate’s or four-year bachelor’s degrees in building sciences and similar programs or earn a master’s or doctoral degree in construction management, Ms. Hess says.

Those interested in trades work can receive their education and training through universities, community colleges and trade schools or apprenticeships. Apprenticeships involve full-time work with a mentor and taking evening classes to earn an apprenticeship certificate.

“We call apprenticeships the other four-year degree,” Ms. Hess says.

A four-year college or university degree is required for any positions above the craft level, Mr. Heffner says. Craft positions include bricklayer, carpenter, electrician, plumber and roofer, while non-craft positions include architect, construction/project engineer, draftsman, foreman and superintendent.

“As an industry, we haven’t done a good job portraying the positive side,” Mr. Heffner says. “We assume people know as much about the industry as we do.”

The federal government and trades associations, unions and schools are developing image-building and education programs and events to educate students and potential workers about the trades industry and available career opportunities, along with potential earnings, which, Mr. Heffner says, can be lucrative. The different organizations are raising awareness of the trades through career fairs, back-to-school nights, classroom visits, career expositions and hands-on demonstrations.

“There are a lot of groups attacking the problem because there is a current shortage in a lot of areas across the country,” says Donna Franza, director of career development for the Associated General Contractors of America.

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