Illustration: Michelle Thompson

View part one in series: Off the Radar

View part two in series: Back on Track

There are a million stories in the U.S. residential remodeling industry, and every one began with an introduction to the profession.

For some, it was a relative who made a living in the trades. Others might have started with an encouraging building-arts teacher, a summer job doing construction, or the simple realization that they loved working with wood and seeing a building come together.

As contemporary life squeezes out these introductions, diminishing the chances of young people being exposed to the trades, remodelers might draw inspiration from other professions that have confronted workforce shortages of their own.

What could the remodeling industry accomplish if its stakeholders did the same, harnessing their collective energy, creativity, and financial resources to ignite a sense of national excitement about the profession?

It's a big hypothetical. But given the labor crisis that awaits, in the absence of coordinated action, it might be worth dreaming about.

The American College of the Building Arts: a Photo Essay.

Illustration: Michelle Thompson


As with remodeling, the facts about nursing are often at odds with the public perception. In reality, both professions offer pathways to many fascinating and specialized careers, characterized by lifelong learning, hands-on work that is gratifying and personal, and the security of having an expertise that is virtually immune to outsourcing.

The public sees something else. Like the stereotypical unwashed, uneducated construction worker, nurses are often assumed to have little advanced training, authority, or upward mobility in their careers — women, for the most part, often depicted cartoon-ishly by popular culture: from the bedside angel to the battle-axe to the porn star.

Focused efforts to set the record straight have helped attract a new generation of nurses to a profession that badly needs them.

"Nursing has had to struggle for its identity," says Beth Brooks, a registered nurse who is also senior partner for health care at J. Walter Thompson Inside, the employment marketing division of the global advertising agency. In response to a worldwide nursing shortage that began in the 1990s, her company and a number of other organizations have undertaken a variety of initiatives aimed at rekindling interest in the profession.

While noting that nursing and remodeling are very different in many ways, "the parallels are more than ironic," Brooks says. Consider:

Scope of challenge: As with remodeling, an exodus of aging baby boomers threatens to deplete much of the nursing workforce. Meanwhile, demand for nurses increases as the population ages and expands, health care technologies become increasingly complex, and medicine grows more specialized. More than half of U.S. nurses intend to retire between 2011 and 2020. The average registered nurse vacancy rate was 16.1% in 2005. The U.S. will need more than 1.2 million new nurses by 2014. (Source for all these statistics: Nursing Shortage Fact Sheet, American Association of Colleges of Nursing.)

Image problems: Besides the demeaning stereotypes already noted, nurses' work can be difficult and demoralizing. Specific factors that have suppressed interest — and fostered burnout in hands-on nursing jobs — include increased workloads, short-staffing, poor work conditions, and lack of respect from physicians.

What's worked for nursing: Brooks attributes success to raising the visibility of the profession, along with "clarifying misperceptions and debunking myths." Real people star in some of the more successful efforts. A key element of the Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing (, for instance, is "profiles in nursing" — vignettes showcasing several dozen working male and female nurses who work in a range of specialties all over the country, telling their stories in affecting, first-person narratives. These profiles are also featured on posters that are free to employers.

A major target is career changers, in particular professionals who have been downsized out of jobs in sectors such as manufacturing and the airlines. Some campaigns specifically target men, such as the state of Oregon's award-winning posters that ask: "Are you man enough to be a nurse?"

Parents, educators, and other adult influencers are also targeted. "Some of our clients have asked us to build out sections on their Web sites geared to elementary students and their parents," Brooks says. The goal is to show the many careers that nursing can lead to: hospital CEO, operating room manager, community health nurse, pharmaceutical consultant, attorney, etc. Employers are also whetting students' appetites with nursing-specific summer camps, career days, job-shadowing opportunities, and "junior volunteer" programs that support hands-on service learning.

Notably, many nursing outreach materials are available in Spanish and feature a diversity of nurses: men and women of all ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds.

Acknowledgements: Major nursing initiatives are backed by deep-pocketed organizations such as Johnson & Johnson and regional health care centers. But Brooks notes that nursing, like remodeling, is too fragmented to have a single coherent voice. She estimates that less than 10% of the nation's 2.9 million nurses belong to the American Nursing Association. However, there are many specialized nursing organizations — for oncology, pediatrics, emergency medicine, etc. — "and they enjoy robust and active memberships," she says.

Caveats: Beware of unintended consequences. The nursing campaigns have been so successful that "they've created a new problem," Brooks says: too many nursing students for too few nursing school faculty, whose average age is 55. Thousands of qualified nursing school applicants are turned away or wait-listed each year. Brooks cautions remodelers to have adequate teachers and training, such as apprenticeship programs, in place before undertaking a major career-branding initiative. "Close that loop," she says.

Illustration: Michelle Thompson


Here's a riddle for remodelers convinced that the next-generation workforce doesn't want to report for duty early every morning, get dirty, or work slowly up the ladder. How does the U.S. Marine Corps consistently meet its recruitment goals when the reality of life after enlistment includes 13 grueling weeks of boot camp, modest pay, and probable deployment to a war zone?

A fair answer might be the full backing of the U.S. government, including a multimillion-dollar marketing and advertising contract with J. Walter Thompson. Look beyond the money, however, and the Marines' success in convincing young men and women to join its constantly churning ranks provides compelling ideas for the remodeling industry.

Scope of challenge: With a goal of 202,000 active-duty Marines by the end of fiscal year 2011, and reasonably high attrition, the Marine Corps must attract thousands of new recruits each year. In the last fiscal year ending September 30, the recruiting goal was nearly 41,000. "We got 100.06% of our mission," says Major Wes Hayes of the Marine Corps Recruiting Command.