This column originally appeared in the San Diego Transcript on June 19, 2018.
Thousands of young Americans and their proud family members and friends have even more to celebrate than usual at college graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2018. While this significant life milestone is always worth a party, it couldn’t be better timing for the graduates. Unemployment in the United States has fallen under four percent for the first time since 2000. For college graduates over age 25, the unemployment rate is just 2.2 percent.
It’s difficult to wrap my head around this as a construction industry human resources professional. Barely a decade ago, the unemployment rate in the construction industry was in double digits. It was difficult to place individuals in apprenticeship training programs due to the lack of on the job training positions available. Meanwhile, the skilled construction workforce continued to age.
Now we’re in position to hire many more people. But the skilled labor shortage in the United States and the lack of qualified potential employees could hinder the entire construction industry’s future growth. Construction is the second largest employer in the United States, fourth largest in California, and among the top employers in the San Diego region. There is a lot at stake even if you aren’t employed in the industry. The threat posed by Project Labor Agreements choking off merit shop training programs makes a bad situation even worse.
Many of the graduates in the Class of 2018 were told that a college degree is
necessary for a successful career by high school educators and counselors, their families, and even the news media. Vocational programs that were once the mainstay of many high school districts are disappearing.
As a result, many young adults aren’t pursuing the building trades as a career – despite the potential for high wages, the high demand, and the opportunity for self-employment. Until more students begin entering career training programs in our industry such as the Associated Builders and Contractors Apprenticeship Training Program, our industry will continue to suffer from a shortfall of talent.
There was a lot of talent on display earlier this month as fifty-five apprentices graduated with their journeymen certificates from the ABC San Diego Apprenticeship program with proud family and friends watching. After celebrating and enjoying their success, ninety three percent of them would return to their full-time jobs on Monday as construction craft professionals, earning good salaries with full benefits. How good? Good enough to purchase a home, or support a growing family. How many college graduates in the Class of 2018 could say the same?
A traditional college education leading to a degree is not the only path to career success. Many capable, ambitious young people might be surprised at the high level of training and sophistication of the skills including math and reading skills required to succeed. Our apprentices find their math and reading skills pushed to the limit as they learn to interpret, analyze, calculate and create sophisticated construction plans and implement them. They learn management, logistics, and personnel skills just like any university business major. Many go on to take on supervisory roles, or start their own businesses and create more jobs.
It’s also worth pointing out that our skilled craft professionals are not burdened by crushing tuition debt like many of their peers with college degrees. College debt is the second highest form of private debt in the United States, second only to mortgage debt. Students owe $1.2 trillion, and that figure increases every year. Nearly 45 percent of 25-year-olds have outstanding college loans, with an average debt above $20,000. It affects their employment decisions and their ability to establish independence.
With all of these challenges, we cannot afford to see any barriers to apprenticeship training opportunities put in place by legislators through discriminatory Project Labor Agreements (PLA). PLAs require merit shop companies to hire apprentices exclusively from union apprenticeship programs, discriminating against the 85 percent of apprentices who choose to be trained in a program like the one offered by ABC San Diego. Participants in federal and state-approved nonunion apprenticeship programs cannot work on a job covered by a PLA.
We continue to work with our partners at the high school level and continue to appear at career fairs to offer construction apprenticeship as an attractive career alternative. Unless our local, state, and federal officials take steps to increase the number of workers through career education and vocational training, one of the largest sectors of our economy could find itself dead in the water.