Bridging the Opportunity Divide

Building a New Workforce in a World of Help Wanted

November 29, 2017
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Building a New Workforce in a World of Help Wanted
More than 75 percent of builders report a shortage of carpenters and framing crews. Photo by Steve Latimer

Jared Bravo thought he knew a few things about building a house. After all, he had helped his dad refinish their basement when he was a teenager and then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in architecture. But in reality, he knew very little.

Bravo, 25, works for Habitat for Humanity New York City in Queens, N.Y. As the construction site manager, he oversees the gut renovation of old city-owned housing units that are being turned into affordable housing for low-income families. He’s had to learn everything about building on the job.

“The more I’ve been onsite, the more I realized I didn’t actually do much to help fix my dad’s basement,” he jokes.

Though Bravo hadn’t intended to go into construction, the opportunity to learn a trade skill was something that, to him, proved valuable.

That understanding is lost on many young Americans, as a so-called “skills gap” looms over the construction and manufacturing industries that could hamper output over the next decade. After the 2008 housing bust, almost 22 percent of the construction force left for other jobs, leaving 900,000 positions open. Today, the outlook remains bleak. Seventy-seven percent of builders report framing crew shortages and 76 percent say that there aren’t enough carpenters, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

The lack of builders is particularly acute after this year’s hurricane season decimated 25 percent of the Florida Keys and destroyed an estimated 30,000 homes in Houston; Puerto Rico is still reeling from Hurricane Irma’s destruction.

There simply aren’t enough people to help rebuild.

Habitat for Humanity is one of several organizations helping to bridge the labor skills gap while providing employment opportunities to people from low-income neighborhoods.Photo by Steve Latimer

An October 2017 poll conducted by the staffing firm Adecco shows that close to 90 percent of American executives believe apprenticeship programs, which tend to enjoy wide bipartisan support, can close this gap. In 2016, President Obama allocated $265 million in grants for apprenticeship programs through 2019. More recently, President Trump funneled an additional $100 million into those efforts — a move that will likely experience funding struggles as a result of the president’s cuts to educational programs and a 21 percent decrease in funding to the Labor Department.

Nonprofits and local governments also run apprenticeship programs that achieve the same goal for less within the “new-collar” job sector (a term coined by the New York Times), while trade schools are also affordable options.

The worker shortage is already causing construction delays. In the Big Apple, for example, Habitat for Humanity New York City acts as a general contractor building affordable housing units. It’s had to stretch deadlines because skilled carpenters and other tradespeople weren’t available.

But it hasn’t been all bad news for Habitat — or other groups, like YouthBuild — that work to create a pipeline of workers.

“The upside is that we’re returning and providing roads for people in the community to become laborers or construction workers that may not have realized this was an option,” says Karen Haycox, CEO of Habitat for Humanity New York City.

Robert Taylor, executive director for New York’s East Harlem chapter of YouthBuild, echoes these sentiments. “Not every person who comes into our program is going to be equipped to take on tech jobs that require a four-year college education, especially if you’re already reading at the fourth- or sixth-grade level … If you’re someone coming from somewhere where you’re not finishing high school, construction jobs are great to be placed into with spillover benefits,” he says.

More than half of businesses blame schools for not providing pathways to middle-class labor jobs. But Albuquerque, N.M., mayor Richard J. Berry views the problem differently: Schools are failing to teach kids about trade jobs, and businesses aren’t jumping in with opportunities to learn.

“The industry on one side said, ‘We need a better-trained workforce’ but didn’t know how to put that through an educational framework, so we told them to create the curriculum and we’ll put it into practice,” Berry tells NationSwell after speaking at the 2017 NationSwell Summit on Solutions this past November.

Through the five-year long partnership Running Start for Careers, high school students receive dual credit for classes in plumbing, electrical wiring, carpentry and other technical trades. The result? A 36 percent increase in the graduation rate among students who are traditionally lower income, according to Berry.

“We had kids asking, ‘Why am I in school?’” Berry says. “You can sit them down and explain to students all day in a classroom why they need geometry, but it doesn’t click until you get them to work with Joe the Carpenter who’s building roof trusses and explains why A-squared plus B-squared has to equal C-squared, or the roof will fall down. Then, they’ll become interested and see that there are actual roads to the middle class without having to be burdened with student debt.

Bravo, the site manager with Habitat for Humanity New York City, says that the interest to learn new skills exists, it just needs to be piqued.

“When you’re working with high school and college kids, you might spark an interest in something they didn’t realize they had,” he says. “You just have to show them a different angle of what they think they know.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Jared Bravo works for AmeriCorps. NationSwell apologizes for the error.

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