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Alabama Moves to Deal With Shortage of Apprentices

Tue March 06, 2012 - Southeast Edition
Mary Reed

Alarm bells began to ring loudly seven years ago.

In 2005 the Construction Labor Research Council warned that with many workers in the industry of an age when they would retire in the next decade, unless more apprentices were brought into construction there would be a severe shortage in skilled trades such as carpenters, electricians, pipefitters and welders.

By 2007 the U.S. Department of Labor was forecasting a 1.5 million shortfall of construction workers by 2012. Although the recession that followed meant the industry lost jobs, the situation has improved to a point where Alabama is already seeing fewer craftspersons than are needed. This problem will be exacerbated as the economy recovers, particularly with potential growth in the state’s automobile manufacturing facilities, anticipated upgradings of infrastructure, and transportation and energy projects.

Given that the average age of craftspersons now working in construction is 47, and that currently for every four workers who retire or leave the industry only one enters it, the situation will become more urgent with each passing year.

A major factor in the shortage of apprentices in construction is the current strong focus on college degrees as a path to a successful career, leading to neglect of skilled trades as a viable and equally valuable career choice.

During his recent testimony to the Senate on the looming crisis, Mike Rowe, host of the popular TV series Dirty Jobs, noted that “American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them. In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.”

Rowe further explained his position, saying “In high schools the vocational arts have all but vanished.We’ve elevated the importance of ’higher education’ to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled ’alternative.’ Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the- job-training opportunities as ’vocational consolation prizes,’ best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of ’shovel ready’ jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.”

How then to meet the challenge of revitalizing an aging work force by overcoming young persons’ apparent lack of interest in construction careers?

The Alabama Legislature moved by passing Act 220 creating the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute (ACRI) during its 2010 session. Funded by an employer fee of $150 per $100,000 of payroll for workers below the foreman or supervisor level, the amount generated will be $1.75 million per year. The aim of the Institute is threefold: to provide highly skilled craftspersons for construction and better opportunities for these workers, as well as enhancing economic development in Alabama.

As part of its outreach effort, the ACRI oversees the award-winning Go Build Alabama campaign, which furthers its goals of educating young persons about trade and career opportunities within construction, correcting misconceptions about the industry and providing resources for those interested in joining it. According to Go Build Alabama data, construction is expected to grow by a projected 19 percent rate through 2018, making skilled trades an attractive career prospect for young workers.

Even in the relatively short time Go Build Alabama has been in existence, the project has proved a remarkable success.

ACRI has already seen more than 56,000 visits to the Go Build Alabama Web site and visitors have made 159,000 page views. Ninety-nine percent of visitors say they find the site useful or very useful, and more than 3,500 individuals have already registered in its career database.

Based on the number of views of specific trade occupations, the top five careers of interest to visitors are:

• Electricians (20.2 percent)

• Plumbers (14.6 percent)

• Welders (13.6 percent)

• Construction carpenters (11.3 percent)

• Boilermakers (10.4 percent)

“We have hard data that the Go Build Alabama marketing, communication and public relations campaign has been successful in driving prospective construction workers to the Go Build Web site. Of course, we’ve only been in operation for a year so it will take more time and tracking to determine long-term impacts,” said Tim Alford, executive director of the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute.

Auburn University at Montgomery’s Center for Business is currently conducting the first annual external evaluation of program outcomes, which the ACRI plans to build on each year.

“The Go Build campaign has shown that it can change misperceptions on the part of students and their influencers in relation to construction careers in the construction industry [e.g. wages, benefits, working conditions]. Perhaps even more important, the program has demonstrated its ability to change attitudes toward construction careers,” Alford stated. “As Mike Rowe says, we are increasingly letting people know that ’construction careers’ are not alternatives to good careers — they are good careers.

“We don’t yet have the data on long-term impacts but it stands to reason that if we are getting more people to consider commercial and industrial construction careers, more are learning where they can get education and training in these careers, and more are enrolling in training programs, then we are likely to have more skilled tradesmen five years from now and into the foreseeable future. Of course, all of this will accelerate when the economy does,” Alford pointed out.

As part of its outreach efforts, Go Build Alabama was present at 25 career or college fairs reaching more than 25,000 Alabama students to introduce the campaign through grassroots efforts last year. The campaign also is using statewide television, print and online advertisements to drive interested parties to the Web site.

TV host Rowe, whose own Web site helped provide resources for the Go Build Web site, described the latter as “built to champion skilled labor.” Given that neither a skilled trade nor a college education guarantees a job, as he sees it, the value of an education comes with the skill learned, for once a skill is acquired, the person acquiring it will always possess it. “Not all knowledge comes from college, but skill is a matter of degree,” Rowe said.

The purpose of Rowe’s Web site and PR campaign “for hard work and skilled labor” is to call attention to the growing skills gap in the trades, and provide comprehensive resources for anyone looking to explore those vocations, as well as to focus the country on the very real issues facing trade workers, miners and farmers. In addition to the trade resource center, Rowe established The mikeroweWORKS Foundation to help fund scholarship programs and other initiatives that reinvigorate trade school enrollments and industrial arts programs around the country.

For more information, visit

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