A recent National Public Radio feature neatly summarized one great solution for the distressing shortage of workers in the construction industry and one humongous problem keeping us from fully implementing that solution. The solution calls for more apprenticeship programs, such as those being implemented in South Carolina. The problem, even in the Palmetto State, is parents’ near-maniacal belief that the only way their kids will get ahead is if they go to college.
I understand the reasons why this mantra began to get chanted in households everywhere. Every chart showing how much more money college grads earn over a lifetime compared with high school graduates only reinforces the idea. But I also can show you dozens of careers in which non-college types out-earn baccalaureates. Owning a remodeling company often is one of them. And not only is the financial upside better, the work, as you well know, can be a whole lot more rewarding than sitting at a desk all day.
Trouble is, those advantages don’t get touted loudly or often enough. That’s why I cheered when I came across a commentary by Rick Davis, a sales consultant and 30-year veteran of the construction products industry. His comments were directed to building material suppliers, but they could just as easily apply to remodelers. Here’s what he wrote:
“I hear leaders constantly harping about the lack of interest young people have in our industry. The leaders say, ‘Our industry just isn’t sexy.’ I disagree!
“I recently spoke as a volunteer at a local community college. My speech was on sales and career guidance. During my presentation, I sold the value of the construction industry by assuring attendees that there is no other industry where so many high-level leaders started out as line workers driving trucks or working sales counters. No other industry guarantees that the production of our products (i.e., houses) will never be shipped overseas. At a time when young people are emerging from college and struggling to find meaningful work, it seems that the building industry is a very great place to start.
“If you are struggling to get young people into your business, then change your message to them. Sexy is what you make it! Let’s sell the value of our industry to young people instead of blaming them for not seeing it.”
Mike Rowe, former host of the TV show Dirty Jobs and current host of Somebody’s Gotta Do It, has arguably become America’s No. 1 advocate for skilled manual labor. He told a Congressional committee this year that he owes his calling to his grandfather, a contractor in Baltimore who Rowe says could fix anything. Rowe created Dirty Jobs largely because of him.
“I believe we need a national PR campaign for skilled labor, something that addresses the widening skills gap head-on and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce ...,” Rowe said. “The skills gap seems real, and it’s getting wider.”
How do we narrow that gap? Appealing to women strikes me as a good place to start, given that they make up only about 3% of the construction workforce today. Supporting apprenticeship programs is another; they’re a big reason why countries such as Germany have become manufacturing powerhouses despite their reputation as high-wage, high-cost nations.
Above all, we need to start talking up what makes remodeling so alluring. Money, sweat, getting the job done: It’s the very foundation of sex appeal.