This is a slippery slope for an opinionated Baby Boomer who is not a PhD Sociologist, but here goes…
Nearly every contractor we talk with indicates that finding and keeping employees, even so-called unskilled workers, is becoming increasingly difficult and poses one of the most significant threats to their company’s success. And the problem is not unique to construction—most business owners in almost any industry attest to facing the same dilemma.
So what is the cause of this widespread issue? Walk into any convenience store or fast food restaurant and you’ll see a bunch of “20 something” young men (and women) behind the counter. They are likely earning $9-$12/hour and working 20-30 hours per week. I’m curious — why are they not willing (or able) to work in construction earning easily twice that on a weekly basis, with benefits to boot?
The owners of those establishments will tell you they also have a devil of a time with employees who don’t show up on time, don’t show up at all, and generally leave the business hanging out to dry on a routine basis. We’ve all heard the quips about millennials and their work ethic, which in many ways are unfair, sweeping generalizations. But there must be something fundamentally wrong when businesses across the country—especially those requiring employees to travel or perform manual labor—simply cannot find reliable, responsible employees.
For generations, contractors in Montana had a steady stream of “farm kids” to hire. These kids grew up doing chores, running equipment, fixing fence, and learning basic skills like welding, mechanics, equipment maintenance, and even rudimentary carpentry. Small town kids helped relatives in the tire shop, fuel distributorship, mechanic business and the like. They were exposed to real work and real responsibilities at an early age, and they learned how their work brought them both financial rewards and self-esteem. There are bragging rights that come along with loading 500 bales of hay into a barn loft!
Today, a combination of societal factors and public policy decisions, like child labor laws, create a much different reality for kids. Consider the irony that we encourage boys to put on football helmets and shoulder pads, knowing a percentage of them will suffer broken knees and concussions, while the law prevents them from raking asphalt, packing shingles, or putting cones out on a highway project. If an entrepreneurial young person decides to start a lawn mowing or snow shoveling service, business owners in particular are so afraid of the liability they demand to see the kid’s Independent Contractor Certificate.
Granted, we should not go back to the days of putting teenagers into inherently dangerous situations. But giving them opportunities to earn money doing “real work” and learning job skills would go a long way toward addressing the labor shortage issue.
In addition, is it also possible that some youth raised in single-parent homes simply never had the right role model and the proper encouragement to prepare for the workforce? Whether that’s because the caregiver worked more than one job and lacked free time, or wasn’t necessarily adept at fixing leaks in the sink or replacing spark plugs, the result may be a young person who is less motivated, or not independent enough, to go on the road with a construction crew. That problem is compounded if a parent is willing to let their son or daughter stay home and work 20 hours a week at convenience store. There are obviously many exceptions to this observation, as there are plenty of examples of single parents who raised highly responsible, successful young adults. But the statistics are staggering—there are far more women than men enrolled in U.S. universities today, and the percentage is growing. So what are the young men doing?
To bring young people into the construction trades, we need a societal shift. We need to help them and their parents understand the opportunities and the rewards of learning a trade and working toward a goal. We need to give kids more opportunities and encouragement to learn how to work while they are learning the knowledge they’ll need in the workplace. We need to provide them with mentors and role models who can demonstrate the value of learning new skills and developing a strong work ethic.
There is no quick fix to the workforce shortage facing MCA members, but the association is actively working with education officials, elected leaders, and other business groups to address this pressing issue. Watch for more information in the months to follow.