Across Washington’s economy, there’s a growing disconnect between the needs of businesses and output of our education and workforce training systems. That’s true in Washington’s construction industry, which is giving voice to their persistent troubles in filling skilled positions. That strains growth in an industry that is fundamental to the state’s overall economic well-being. A 2015 UW study estimated the construction industry paid more than $2.1 billion annually in sales and B&O taxes, representing 18.2 percent of all payments.
Bridging this skills gap facing the construction industry was the topic of a Washington Business Alliance panel discussion hosted by the World Trade Center Seattle on May 10, 2016. The conversation was moderated by Business Alliance President Colleen McAleer. The panelists were
- Shannon Affholter (Master Builders Association of King & Snohomish County),
- Jene Jones (League of Education Voters),
- Nancy Munro (Associated General Contractors of Washington State),
- and Jeff Smith (Turner Construction).
Colleen McAleer is taking an active role drumming up enthusiasm for Career Tech among lawmakers. At the panel discussion she stressed broader societal change that must occur in how we perceive technical and trade careers and the education that supports them. “This isn’t just a matter of funding in Olympia,” she told the audience during her opening remarks. “We need to make sure attitudes shift statewide among policymakers, educators, parents and finally the students.”
Shannon Affholter, Executive Director of Master Builders Association of King & Snohomish County, told the audience his organization had recently decided it needed to do more in addressing the skills gap. “With all the growth that’s taking place and the affordable housing incentive,” Affholter said, “our members are extremely busy and in need of talent. Securing a better talent pipeline for our industry is critical. We hope we can continue to have an impact in this area to help train the next generation of a skilled labor force.”
the policy landscape
Jene Jones, a Government Relations professional for League of Education Voters, provided a policy expert’s viewpoint on the problem. McAleer called her “one of the most passionate advocates for this issue that [I] have ever encountered.” Jones laid out the history of Career Tech education in Washington State.
“Between 1933 and 1977, we amply funded vocational courses in all Washington schools. In 1977, Washington State cut that funding in half. Because of that cut, schools eliminated programs because they were more expensive. It’s very expensive to round up materials and supplies to offer skills training in many fields such as construction trades, automotive repair, and other career-connected learning. In 1982 it was discovered that schools were taking that extra money and using it elsewhere, so cuts got even deeper. School districts have local control which is critically important and part of our state constitution. But we are still stuck in this cycle of underfunding programs resulting in money being used in other areas. We need new money and we need safeguards to make sure it’s spent on the right thing.”
Jones explained the Career Tech coalition’s two-stage plan for strengthening Career Tech learning pathways for Washington students. Execution of the advocacy plan is being led by the Business Alliance in collaboration with the League of Education Voters and a coalition of businesses, unions, educators, and legislators.
“First comes the statewide work. That is is where the process currently is,” Jones explained. She took note of progress in the 2016 legislative session, but stressed that funding demands across the state are immense. “The next phase is going to local school districts and showing them how much opportunity is available for all kids… And making sure that the funding allocated is ending up in hands-on, applied training.”
McAleer, who is leading the effort as President of the Business Alliance, affirmed the importance of the collective effort. “Our coalition is getting stronger and louder all the time,” she said, “and this is a battle our economy can’t afford to lose.
What’s responsible for the lack of traction in the statewide effort to affect policy? Jones indicated that a lack of engagement and coordination across the business community wasn’t helping. “Legislators told me last year some businesses were talking about job shortages, and some weren’t. As long as business is sending mixed messages there is an excuse to do nothing. By providing a united front that partners business with education policy experts, this need will become impossible to ignore. Construction and other industries need a single message going forward and a shortlist of priorities that business is behind.”
Without coordination, there is confusion which becomes the basis for inaction.
“What do we do about this?” Jones asked. “We need more money to get to actual programs and kids. This means policy reform around allowable uses of those funds. The 2017 session will be a great session to bring these accountability measures forward, and there will be resistance.” To achieve a solution that benefits kids, businesses, and communities, Jones prescribed “a diverse, large, and coordinated effort like the kind Washington Business Alliance is currently leading and forming.”
“I was in the classroom for twenty years,” Jones told her fellow panelists. “Some of those kids really engaged, and some of them didn’t. We need to provide relevance and we need to expose them to different career options that will give them that drive to work hard in school.”
“Most people in the construction industry are not executives,” McAleer noted with an eye toward the panel. “For those people,” she asked, “is construction work a ‘dead end’ job?” Jeff Smith had a personal story to share in response that refuted this notion. “I’ve been working in the construction industry for 34 years,” Smith said. “I’ve worked steadily that entire time. I started in my teens fresh out of high school and now I’m an executive. One of the really stellar things about the industry is that it provides the opportunity for you to invent and re-invent yourself professionally, learn important skills, and grow into new levels of responsibility. It’s definitely not a dead end job.” Smith currently serves as General Superintendent for Turner Construction Seattle, overseeing all of Turner’s active projects.
“There are no dead end jobs in the construction industry,” said Nancy Munro, President of the Associated General Contractors of Washington. “The industry is very dynamic, exciting, and personally rewarding. If an individual is motivated, responsible, and wants to move up the ladder, it will happen. Opportunity abounds!” Munro said she sees job opportunities daily which are waiting to be filled. “The industry seeks apprentices, competent supervision, and managers to fill positions that will open up from escalating demands and an aging workforce.”
Are Career Tech students at risk during economic downturns?
Some critics of career-connected learning say that kids who take the Career Tech paths are vulnerable to economic fluctuations. McAleer asked Master Builders Association’s Affholter about that critique. He responded that “any industry is going to have some cyclical ups-and-downs. But it’s important for people to realize that the skill-sets you learn on a construction site, whether you’re building a home or a stadium, are transferable to work in other industry sectors. Learning to show up on time, read a blueprint, think critically, solve problems, and work as a team are skill-sets that apply across many industries.”
A pipeline problem
The construction skills gap is a pipeline problem. The industry has many institutions that train and develop employees. Union apprenticeships are an effective and common path into commercial building careers. A major problem is the lack of young people who are interested in and possess the base required to begin these lucrative apprenticeship programs.
Turner Construction’s Jeff Smith said that “the number one thing we’re looking for good are communication and critical thinking skills. That’s the foundation a person needs to enter into an apprenticeship.” The industry is well-equipped to train people in specialized skills, but they struggle to find new workers who are ready to be trained. “We need the basics: reading, writing, arithmetic, and effective communication.”
In evaluating the problem, Smith kept an eye to both ends of the talent pipeline: entrances and exits. “50 percent of our workforce will pass through the retiring threshold over the next decade,” he told McAleer. “That means that over the next decade, we’ll need to replace half our workforce. We work constantly to reach out to the community. There’s a program called Youthforce 2020 where our management staff goes out to high schools and talks about opportunities in the industry and paths that lead there. We’re developing the next generation of industry leaders both in the trades and for collegiate, engineering-type opportunities.”
McAleer pointed out that Running Start funds are available for high schoolers to attend community college technical programs. “However,” Jones responded, “if we want to encourage diversifying and expanding the construction field — more females and students of color — then these programs need to be offered in every high school. Only then can underrepresented demographics explore career pathways, and connect and discover interests, without having to commit blindly to leaving their school for their last two years of high school for a program in which they have no experience.”
This will only happen by advocating at the school board level for Career Tech programs in their schools, Jones said. “Business can play a big role in demonstrating need and demand to school boards statewide for more career-connected learning”
The construction-focused event was the first in a 4-part series of panel discussions organized by the Washington Business Alliance. The full series will examine the impact of the skills gap across five industries: construction, health care, advanced manufacturing, and maritime. For businesses in these sectors, the biggest barrier to growth is a lack of skilled workers possessing certificates, vocational diplomas, and mid-level degrees.
The next installment occurred June 21st, 2016. It focused on Washington State’s maritime sector.
From left to right: Shannon Affholter (Master Builders Association of King & Snohomish County), Nancy Munro (Associated General Contractors of Washington State),Jene Jones (League of Education Voters), Jeff Smith (Turner Construction), and Colleen McAleer (Washington Business Alliance).