Despite being among the only jobs that can’t be outsourced, U.S. is largely blind to construction industry’s worth

Updated May 2, 2014

shutterstock_112558970The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about the need for more apprenticeships. Sure enough, it contained a misconception common to just about everything you read in the media about construction in this country today.

Author Lauren Weber opened with the statement nobody questions, that more apprenticeships are needed to fill the skills gap. But then she immediately slams the one industry where the shortage of skilled workers is so acute it’s left more than a million jobs open.  Quote:

“Two-thirds of apprenticeship programs in the U.S. are in the construction industry, furthering a blue-collar image that stifles interest among young people.”

Proof once again that in most of the media today, blue collar = dirt = avoid at all costs.

Every parent wants little Johnny, or Jenny, to be a doctor or lawyer and barring that at least have a nice, clean job in the more desirable “high-tech” field. If a kid has sufficient high-tech skills to get a college degree in computer science, web development or software programming, that’s one thing. But these are not the kids who are getting apprenticeships.

Weber and the Wall Street Journal aren’t the only ones who are biased against construction. I’ve seen dozens of articles about apprenticeships in this allegedly booming high tech field.  Our local paper ran an article a few years back about a high school teacher who’d obtained a grant to train young students in the assembly of electronic components. Trouble with that is, there’s half a billion people in Asia right now assembling electronics for $11 a day, working 14 hour days, 7 days a week.

Construction is the one industry that cannot be outsourced. Furthermore, anybody who has the drive can put in a few years learning the business and then start their own company from scratch. I know dozens of young men who started with nothing and build million-dollar companies in construction. I don’t see many factory workers opening up their own factories.

Still the media, schools, white-collar parents, just about everybody outside the construction industry continue to believe in this air-conditioned fantasy world where all the children are above average and nobody has to get dirty. It’s like Mike Rowe says repeatedly—dirt used to be a badge of honor, today its something everybody runs from.

This blind spot in the national consciousness has repercussions.

First, in the battle for vocational education dollars, construction may very well lose out to “high-tech” apprenticeships, even if these only produce factory jobs with little career potential.

Second, as long as the general public remains blind to the importance of construction, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get a highway bill passed. The farmers got their farm bill passed this year. The Department of Defense got most of the weapons programs it wanted. The banks got their zero-interest loans from the government. Congress finds it impossible to pass a highway bill and is adamant that the gas tax remain, unadjusted for inflation, at the same levels as in 1992.

In 2009, newly elected President Obama talked like he wanted a good portion of the stimulus bill to go toward rebuilding infrastructure. And recently he proposed a healthy $300-billion highway bill.

But early in Obama’s first term a group of feminists hijacked that idea and instead got almost all the stimulus money diverted into women’s jobs—nurses, teachers, social workers and librarians. They called Obama’s ideas, the “macho stimulus plan” and “testosterone laden.” Sure enough “social” infrastructure won out over shovel ready and the nation’s highway programs barely got enough to repair the country’s potholes.

That’s the penalty construction pays for being invisible to the rest of the country.