Californian’s rejection of Proposition 6 last month – a state ballot measure that would have repealed tax legislation intended to fund transportation infrastructure upgrades – means the state is projected to raise $52.4 billion over the next decade for badly needed repairs to our state’s aging roads, highways and bridges. The funding also means a boom in construction jobs. Studies estimate that every $1 billion spent on highway infrastructure creates as many as 13,000 new jobs. This means the estimated state funding alone could create more than 65,000 jobs in California annually.
But a huge road block is ahead – not a lack of funding, but a lack of people. Firms are already struggling to find skilled workers to fulfill current demand, and they worry that this labor shortage might make it impossible to deliver on critical, desperately needed infrastructure projects.
This unprecedented need presents an equally unprecedented opportunity for young job seekers. Contrary to some stereotypes, construction jobs in 2018 are well-paid, technologically advanced and high-skilled. With so many jobs available and with so much at stake, we desperately need school districts and educational partners to work with the construction industry to help prepare young people for jobs in this growing, dynamic field.
The labor shortage is hitting California hard. A report released earlier this year by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 62 percent of California contractors are struggling to fill both salaried and craft worker positions. A majority of the firms surveyed said they anticipate these hiring challenges to continue. There’s plenty of work to be done, but not enough people to do it – and that’s especially problematic given what’s to come.
A 2017 Builder magazine poll of young people ages 18 to 25 found that, of those who knew what they wanted to do, only 3 percent were interested in the construction trades. And that’s a shame, considering California construction workers are among the highest paid in the nation, with average hourly earnings of $21.26. Construction jobs also boast paid leave and relatively high job security given the amount of building expected to take place in California in both the near and distant future. With so many jobs available, right now is an especially opportune time for young people to prepare for careers in construction – so why are many missing this opportunity?
Lack of education and exposure is a big reason. More must be done to get young people interested in and exposed to construction careers, and high school classrooms are a great place to start.
This means developing classroom programming that introduces students not just to traditional construction techniques but to new and exciting technologies – like 3D printers, robotics and innovative machinery – that would captivate their interests while also preparing them with the skills needed to excel in a changing industry. It also means expanding linked learning opportunities, which help prepare students for careers in integrated academic settings, to include more opportunities in the construction and building fields.
It could also include working with high school counselors to ensure they have materials, facts and resources about construction careers ready to share with students. Or it could mean expanding hands-on learning and real-life experience programs. Industry leaders must also work with schools to develop robust mentorship programs that allow young people access to construction sites and professional mentors.
The labor shortage represents a huge opportunity for thousands of young people – but only if school districts, educators and the construction industry step up. We must work together to prepare students to take advantage of the vast opportunities available. In doing so, we’ll not only be able to develop the workforce necessary to deliver on infrastructure projects that our region desperately needs but also provide thousands of young people graduating high school with the work skills necessary to help them secure a good-paying career in the industry that is building our future.
John Hakel is the executive director of Southern California Partnership for Jobs.
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