First Word: A problem you can solve

The last thing the construction industry needs is another labor problem, but two recent studies confirm a disturbing trend you’ve probably noticed: most high school and college graduates lack basic literacy and math skills and don’t understand what it takes to hold a full-time job.

A Pew Charitable Trust study found 50 percent of college graduates were unable to analyze news stories, understand documents, balance a checkbook or figure restaurant tips. The American Institutes for Research, a social science and behavioral research group, tested students nearing graduation at two-year and four-year colleges. Seventy-five percent of junior college students and more than half of those at four-year colleges lacked the literacy skills to evaluate credit card offers or arguments in newspaper editorials.

This presents an ominous outlook for all industries and employers, but is especially troubling for our industry. A tarnished, inaccurate image of the construction profession makes attracting young people to it difficult in the first place. And now, even if you find a person with the technical qualifications, he might not have the soft skills.

Bob Carlson, general manager of AOI Construction Services in Omaha, Nebraska, says a lack of basic skills among young workers is a phenomenon that has grown progressively worse. In a construction office environment, these workers struggle to write letters and complete forms. Reports and daily logs from the field are rife with grammar, spelling and composition errors. “I think we got off track, out of focus, in our education system,” Carlson says. High schools started pointing students toward four-year degrees and stopped equipping them for the workforce.

Whether this bleak picture improves depends largely on you. College and high school administrators are more open to industry advisors than ever before. Many have curriculum advisory boards you can join.

You’ll be glad to hear the construction industry is doing a good job of partnering with educators. Through a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Associated General Contractors of America sponsors nine Construction Career Academies at public high schools. Teachers in these schools within schools work with members of the industry to write realistic exercises that coincide with English and math principles students are learning.

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The outcome is heartening. In one year, math scores for students at the Construction Career Academy in Omaha improved 30 percent compared to a less than 10-percent improvement for their peer group at a regular high school, says Carlson, who works with the academy. “Suddenly, math makes a lot of sense,” Carlson says one student told him.

If you want to help create an adept construction workforce in your area, here are some things you can do:

  • Get involved in an industry association. Most of them have education programs.
  • Ask administrators at your local schools how you can help teachers.
  • Take part in national Careers in Construction Week. Visit for more information. The third annual event will be held October 15-19.
  • If you are a member of AGC, attend a Construction Career Academy workshop and bring local educators with you. The next workshop is tentatively scheduled for this fall in Omaha. Call (703) 837-5389 or go to for details.
  • Find out if area high schools have internship programs. Carlson says young people who intern with his firm as they are finishing their education adapt well to full-time employment.

The construction industry faces a lot of challenges you can’t do anything about. But you can be part of this solution. And you might pick up some bright, enthusiastic young employees along the way.