Conventional wisdom says the current shortage of construction workers will only get worse. What do the demographics say?
You’ve heard it for years. Construction workers are getting older. Young people don’t want to go into construction. Immigrants are taking all the jobs, because no one else wants them. Construction doesn’t pay enough to bring in new blood. How do the perceptions of today compare to the reality of tomorrow?
It’s no secret that, as a nation, we’re not getting any younger. One has only to look as far as the reported population statistics to see that age is a contributing factor in not only workforce shortages, but the composition of the workforce, as well. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010, less than 15 percent of the population will be 65 years or older. But in 2011, the first members of the Baby Boom will turn 65. By 2050, projections indicate nearly a quarter of people living in the United States will be 65 or older. Conversely, the percent of members in the working population – age 18 to 64 – will also decline at a steady pace. This group will decrease from 63 percent of the population in 2010 to 57 percent in 2050.
PROJECTED PERCENTAGES OF TOTAL U.S. POPULATION, AGES 18-64
Age 2010 2020 2030 2040 2050 18 to 24 9.90% 9.03% 9.12% 9.13% 9.01% 25 to 44 26.78% 26.28% 25.50% 24.99% 25.25% 45 to 64 26.10% 24.71% 22.57% 22.68% 22.43%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division
Declining growth rate, rising diversity
Even though the total U.S. population will continue to increase in the future – from 296 million in 2005 to 438 million in 2050 – the rate of increase will decline. Over the next six decades, the average annual percent change in population will decrease by approximately 50 percent – until by 2050, when the population is expected to grow at a rate slower than any in U.S. history.
There were 50 children and elderly people per 100 adults of working age in 2005. That will rise to 72 dependents per 100 adults of working age in 2050.
– Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, U.S. Populations Projections: 2005-2050, Pew Research Center
However, while the rate of growth slows, the rate of change increases. The non-Hispanic white population will no longer contribute to population growth after 2030, because the group will be declining in size. According to a 2008 report from the Pew Hispanic Center, whites will become a minority by 2050, with a projected 47 percent of the population. Hispanic-origin residents will be the fastest growing group – the Pew Research Center predicts 82 percent of the population increase will be due to immigrant arrivals and their U.S.-born descendants.
The Hispanic population is currently the largest minority group in the United States, reaching 14 percent of the population in 2005. In 2050, Hispanics are expected to make up 29 percent of the population.
There are now approximately 10 million Hispanic students in the nation’s public kindergartens and its elementary and high schools; they make up about one in five public school students in the United States In 1990, just one in eight public school students were Hispanic.
– Rick Fry and Felisa Gonzales, Pew Hispanic Center
Assessing the shortage
Fluctuations in job markets and regional considerations notwithstanding, the gap between job vacancies and job applicants is set to grow over time. The Department of Labor’s ETA/Business Relations Group determined in a 2004 study that, as baby boomers – born between 1946 and 1964 – leave the workforce, the construction industry’s worker shortage will increase. The study determined that the most critical shortage will be of skilled craft workers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in their January 2008 Occupational Outlook Handbook, reports a positive job outlook for construction trades and related occupations – projected to grow 10 percent through 2016, with an 8-percent growth for heavy equipment operators. The most pressing need is expected to be for paving, surfacing and tamping equipment operators. As America’s infrastructure continues to age and deteriorate, the number of highway, bridge and road construction projects will increase. For a look at projected employment increases for some occupations within the construction industry, see the chart below.
OCCUPATIONAL OUTLOOK, 2006-2016, SELECTED CONSTRUCTION OCCUPATIONS
+8 percent change; from 494,000 to 536,000
Paving, surfacing & tamping equipment operators:
+9 percent change; from 64,000 to 70,000
+11 percent change; from 1,232,000 to 1,366,000
+16 percent change; from 487,000 to 564,000
Structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers:
+8 percent change; from 102,000 to 110,000
Welding, soldering and brazing workers:
+5 percent change; from 462,000 to 484,000
Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Construction Trades and Related Occupations
As one of the fastest-growing population groups, Hispanics are an important segment of the construction industry. In 2006, 2.9 million of the 11.8 million workers in the construction industry were Hispanic, according to FMI.
Dissecting the trends
After peaking at more than a quarter of the construction workforce, Hispanic workers are experiencing a slight pullback. Although the number of Hispanic construction workers has increased each year, the economic downturn and resulting slump in the construction industry has disproportionately affected Hispanic workers. In the first quarter of 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the unemployment rate for Hispanics reached 6.5 percent, in comparison to a 4.7-percent unemployment rate for all other population groups. However, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, the labor force participation rate among Hispanics has not changed – indicating immigrant workers are not leaving the workforce, even though 250,000 Hispanic construction workers lost jobs over the past year. Ken Simonson, chief economist, Associated General Contractors of America, reported anecdotal information that suggests the majority of the losses occurred in the residential construction sector, which Simonson says tends to pay less than non-residential construction jobs.
Increasing numbers of foreign-born workers presents unique challenges not faced by employers in years past. In a study funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and released in December by the Center for Construction Research and Training, researchers found significant disadvantages for Hispanic workers. Among the workers who reported they do not speak English in their home, 42 percent said they could not speak English proficiently, and an additional 42 percent said they could not speak English at all.
The results, reported in The Construction Chart Book: The U.S. Construction Industry and its Workers, also indicated Hispanic construction workers are less likely to be managers than non-Hispanic workers and more likely to be injured on the jobsite.
Although a college degree and a construction career are not mutually exclusive of one another, the BLS reports most people who enter construction with a degree start as management trainees or assistants to construction managers, and those with construction science degrees often gravitate to jobs as field engineers, schedulers or cost estimators.
For the remainder of the construction trades, a variety of educational and training opportunities are in place, and the requirements are different for each job. For example, laborers and helpers may learn their jobs in a short period of time through on-the-job training, while skilled craft workers learn their trade over many years, often supplemented through classroom instruction. Technical schools, trade schools and apprenticeship programs are the most established methods of entering the construction industry.
In 2005, approximately 35 percent of the construction workforce had post-secondary education, compared to 59 percent of the total workforce, based on CPWR Data Center estimates from the Current Population Survey. Hispanic workers are less likely to have either post-secondary education or a high school diploma than non-Hispanic construction workers. Significant increases in Hispanic construction workers in recent years have coincided with a drop in the average educational levels of the industry.
Nearly three million students graduated from high school in 2007, and of those, about two million, or 67.2 percent, were attending a college or university in October 2007. More than 93 percent enrolled as full-time students. High school graduates not enrolled in college entered the labor force at a rate of 76.6 percent, compared with a labor force participation rate of 56.2 percent for high school dropouts.
Vocation education is now referred to as career and technical education by the U.S. Department of Education, and includes career-related programs at certificate, associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree levels. According to a statistical analysis released by the National Center for Education Statistics this July, Career and Technical Education in the United States: 1990 to 2005, the number of students enrolled in trade and industry fields is dropping – from 5.4 percent of students in 1990 to 3.2 percent in 2004.
Apprenticeship programs administered by a combination of employers, trade associations and unions are still one of the most popular methods of entering the construction trades, with the added benefit of comprehensive training directed toward a specific trade. Apprenticeships can last up to five years and include classroom training. According to the BLS, the available programs differ for each trade:
Brickmasons, blockmasons and stonemasons: Sponsored by local contractors, trade associations, or local union-management committees. Apprenticeship programs usually require 3 years of on-the-job training, in addition to a minimum of 144 hours of classroom instruction each year in blueprint reading, mathematics, layout work, sketching, and other subjects. Applicants for apprenticeships must be at least 17 years old and in good physical condition. A high school education is preferable with courses in mathematics, mechanical drawing, and general shop.
Construction equipment operators: Some construction equipment operators train in formal operating engineer apprenticeship programs administered by union-management committees of the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Associated General Contractors of America. Apprenticeship programs consist of at least 3 years, or 6,000 hours, of paid on-the-job training together with and 144 hours of related classroom instruction each year.
Construction laborers: A number of employers, particularly large nonresidential construction contractors with union membership, offer employees formal apprenticeships. These programs include between 2 and 4 years of classroom and on-the-job training. In the first 200 hours, workers learn basic construction skills such as blueprint reading, the correct use of tools and equipment and safety and health procedures. The remainder of the curriculum consists of specialized skills training in three of the largest segments of the construction industry: building construction, heavy and highway construction and environmental remediation, such as lead or asbestos abatement and mold or hazardous waste remediation.
Structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers: Most employers recommend a 3- or 4-year apprenticeship consisting of paid on-the-job training and evening classroom instruction as the best way to learn this trade. Apprenticeship programs are administered by committees made up of representatives of local unions of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers or the local chapters of contractors’ associations.
More than 6,000 apprenticeship programs are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services.
Statistical data for this article was taken from the following references.
U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, 2008 National Population Projections.
U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050, 2008 Pew Hispanic Center, a Pew Research Center project, www.pewhispanic.org.
One-in-Five and Growing Fast: A Profile of Hispanic Public School Students, 2008 Pew Hispanic Center, a Pew Research Center project, www.pewhispanic.org.
U.S. Department of Labor, ETA/Business Relations Group, America’s Construction Industry: Identifying and Addressing Workforce Challenges, Report of Findings and Recommendations For The President’s High Growth Job Training Initiative in the Construction Industry, December 2004.
U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, Construction Trades and Related Occupations.
FMI, 2008 U.S. Construction Overview.
CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training, produced with support from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health grant number OH008307, The Construction Chart Book: The U.S. Construction Industry and its Workers, Fourth Edition.
Levesque, K., Laird, J., Hensley, E., Choy, S.P., Cataldi, E.F. and Hudson, L. (2008). Career and Technical Education in the United States: 1990 to 2005 (NCES 2008-035). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C.
Other articles in this special report:
Cover Story/Special Report: Attracting the people you need
Web exclusive–Special Report: Attracting the people you need/Training
Web exclusive–Special Report: Attracting the people you need/Top 10 tips for finding a good career school