With looming labor shortages, new legislation aims to bring shop class back to school

How Colorado’s new HB19-1008 legislation could be part of the labor solution
A proposed bill would help schools fund hands-on training to introduce students to trades. (Photo: Auremar, Dreamstime)

Shop class used to be a staple of high schools across the country. However, as school budgets tightened, academic standards rose, STEM classes proliferated and a generation of parents and teachers pushed the four-year college route, shop class has almost vanished from schools across the state. Consequently, kids thinking about their futures have almost no exposure to construction and mechanical skills, and therefore, fewer young people are choosing a career in the trades. The nation now faces a dearth of skilled building, remodeling, HVAC, roofing, plumbing, electric and renovation workers, and the industry is feeling the pinch.

[Related: High school course puts construction industry on students’ radar]

Construction industry employment has been on the upswing for almost two decades, but finding people with construction skills to fill the many open positions is proving challenging. “Demand for construction remains strong across most project types and locations,” said Ken Simonson, the Associated General Contractors of America’s chief economist, in a statement. “Job growth and pay increases in construction are outpacing those in the overall economy. But contractors continue to have difficulty finding qualified workers with the number of unemployed workers who have construction experience at the lowest December level in 19 years.”

One Colorado lawmaker wants to change that.

“I come from a Minnesota construction family, so I’ve always appreciated the importance of the trades,” says Colorado State Representative Tracy Kraft-Tharp of District 29. “As a legislator, getting people involved in the trades has been one of my prime focuses. You know, when in five years Xcel will see 50% of their workforce retire, we’re going to have a problem.”

In an effort to mitigate the staggering shortage of skilled tradespeople, Kraft-Tharp is sponsoring an amendment to 2008’s Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) Act that would allow Colorado’s public schools to apply for state grant funds to build or retrofit facilities that support technical and construction education programs (i.e., shop class) as well as to purchase the necessary equipment to fill those spaces.

“The [Include Career and Technical Education In Building Excellent Schools Today Program] bill itself came from the construction industry,” Kraft-Tharp explained of HB19-1008. “We’ve had schools call and say they want to put shop class back in, but they don’t have the funds to do it. This program makes it happen.”

Kraft-Tharp believes a return to shop class will have a real near-term impact. So, the goal of HB19-1008 is to grant schools the funds they need to teach kids real-world applications of skills like math, expose them to various vocational opportunities and, crucially, give them the skills they need to enter the trades with confidence.

“When you’re able to put your hands on things when you’re in high school, you’re certainly more comfortable looking at it as a career,” says Kraft-Tharp. “That’s the advantage: hands-on learning. When I was growing up with four brothers, they all went to work for my dad’s construction business. They were able to do construction work right out of school because they were so comfortable with it. So, if you can get kids comfortable with construction and other skills, it opens more options.”

[Related: Colorado Homebuilding Academy: From text books to tool belts]

Interest in the program is strong, and the bill passed its first committee review 12-0 in late January. Although there are still several more hurdles to clear before HB19-1008 becomes law, the initial unanimous support is encouraging.

“We’ve done such an amazing job encouraging kids to go to four-year colleges, but not such a great job getting them into trades,” concludes Kraft-Tharp, “so let’s bring shop back to school!”

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