The construction labor force was already shedding workers when the economy started free falling in 2008. Employment in the industry has been steadily rising since the beginning of 2011, but is still well under what it was before that precipitous drop.
Preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show there were an estimated 7.1 million workers in the construction industry in January. In Colorado, BLS projections for December 2017, the most recent estimate available as of press time, put the number of construction workers at nearly 165,000.
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Even though the numbers suggest labor pressure is easing, ask any builder and they’ll tell you that one of their biggest challenges — if not the biggest — is finding workers.
The labor shortage is actually two challenges, according to Michael Smith, director of the Colorado Homebuilding Academy: getting people to work today, and developing new talent that can support the industry as it grows.
“How do we get more people in the field? With a 2% unemployment rate, where the hell is that coming from?” Smith told Colorado Builder. If people are still unemployed when unemployment is as low as it is in Colorado, “there’s usually a reason,” he acknowledged.
Creating opportunity, contextualizing learning
The Academy has a number of programs for high schoolers and adults to help meet those industry challenges.
The Building Pathways program works with high school students to introduce them to construction as an industry. Students can earn academic credit as well as industry certifications. The Youth Construction Apprenticeship provides formalized instruction and field work opportunities for students and people 21 and younger who are working on their GED certificate.
The Academy partners with schools “to help them contextualize learning that they’re already trying to do and make sense for a student. The byproduct for us is it gives us an opportunity to come in, get tools in a young person’s hands and [get students to] at least consider an industry,” Smith said.
The Academy partners with five high schools in the Denver metro area, including Wheat Ridge High School, which is the only student chapter of the National Association of Home Builders in Colorado.
There were an estimated 250 students enrolled in the Building Pathways program in 2017, and 15 apprentices.
Hit the ground running
In addition to attracting young people to the industry, the Academy also has programs designed to bring adults into the fold.
In the Construction Skills Bootcamp program, adults spend eight weeks on training, six of which are spent learning basic skills like “how to use your brain, a pencil and a tape measure,” and how to safely use hand and power tools, Smith said.
Danielle Andrus was previously the managing editor for Colorado Builder, and is currently Editor for the Journal of Financial Planning.