As the economy sorts itself out in a post-pandemic era, labor shortages have become a hot topic for many industries, from fast food franchises to corporate giants. For Colorado’s construction industry, employee shortages are old (hard) hat.
“The labor challenge, for us, is not a recent COVID thing,” says Joel Pennick, vice president at JE Dunn Construction. “This is something we’ve been talking about for 10 years.”
Over the last decade, skyrocketing growth in Colorado has created unrelenting demand for builders. According to census data, Colorado added almost 750,000 new residents between 2010 and 2020, growing the population by nearly 15%–about twice the growth rate of the rest of the nation. All these new residents have needed houses and apartments where they can live, businesses where they can shop, and offices where they can work.
At the same time, a large portion of the construction industry’s workers are aging and heading towards retirement. A pre-pandemic study from the National Center for Construction Education and Research estimated that 41% of the construction workforce was set to retire by 2031. Data since then suggests some of those retirements were accelerated during the pandemic, exacerbating the situation.
Contractors are struggling to keep up. A recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) found that 86% of Colorado specialty and general contractors plan to add headcount this year, but 98% have had trouble filling some or all of their open positions. Those surveyed reported higher costs and postponed or delayed projects as a result.
It’s a situation that might not improve anytime soon. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Colorado has about 180,000 workers in construction now, but will need around 220,000 by 2027 to meet demand. That means the industry must attract about 8,000 new workers each year—for the next five years.
It’s a challenge without an easy—or singular—solution. Here are four things the state’s industry stakeholders are doing to help bridge the labor gap.
Construction work requires knowledge and experience that have been hard to come by in recent years. Over the last couple of decades, vocational education programs in high schools have suffered a heavy blow, due to budget cuts and curriculum shifts meant to prepare students for a four-year college instead of a career in the trades.
Additionally, many construction workers benefit from education they receive on the job site, spending the early stages of their career learning from senior craftsmen. But as the industry loses more workers to retirement, it’s also losing access to that passed-down knowledge.
“This isn’t really a workforce shortage–you can find people,” Pennick says. “But most of them aren’t skilled. There’s a ton of training required, and safety is important. It’s a skilled workforce shortage.”
Several programs are working to boost training options for people interested in entering the field. At the high school level, the Construction Education Foundation–a nonprofit arm of the AGC–has partnered with Front Range school districts to offer Careers in Construction classes. Students can earn core certification in the Home Builders Institute’s pre-apprenticeship training program in as little as two semesters. They can then go on to earn specialty certifications in electrical, plumbing, masonry, and more, and much of the work is eligible for college credit.
For adults looking for a career change, the foundation also offers Construction Careers Now!, a free four-week training program in Commerce City. Classes meet in the evenings to avoid conflicting with participants’ existing day jobs.
Other options include Emily Griffith Technical College, which offers a nine-month Construction Essentials program that prepares graduates to move directly into apprenticeships. Between Construction Essentials and the other construction-related courses it offers, such as welding, the college has served nearly 5,000 students in the last year.
“We’re still in the middle of this reshuffling, rethinking of careers [following the pandemic],” said Linda Van Doren, the school’s vice president of education. “We’re seeing a lot of people evaluate what it is they do and changing as a result.”
Part of the education effort also involves teaching potential workers about the benefits of a career in construction. The annual mean wage for Colorado construction workers in 2021 was $53,220, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and specialized workers can often earn much more. Yet many young people say the industry doesn’t appeal to them.
A 2017 National Association of Home Builders survey found that among young adults who knew the type of career they wanted to pursue, just 3% were interested in construction trades. Those who hadn’t yet decided on a career ranked construction trades low—ninth on a list of 14 career options.
Corey Dahl is a writer and editor. She has written for a wide variety of news and trade publications, in print and online. Corey has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Colorado and a master’s in communications management from Webster University. She lives in Denver with her dog Rosie.