An unprecedented skilled labor shortage exists from a combination of the Great Recession’s record levels of unemployment, industry veterans leaving the workforce and the fact that many high school graduates are not interested in blue-collar jobs. .
Dennis Burke, owner of Mr. Electric of Southeast New Hampshire in Rollinsford, N.H., knows all too well the challenges of finding enough qualified electricians to meet his fluctuating workload. He says his electrical repair company has experienced a high volume of calls from homeowners during the recent period of nor’easters that hit the East Coast, which downed power lines and trees.
Burke’s crew has been working around the clock to restore power to homes since the latest nor-easter in March, but he needs more licensed electricians to meet demand during and after storms. A significant portion of his work has been checking electrical systems before turning power back on, reconnecting service wires to homes, repairing generator transfer switches and installing roof de-icing cables.
“It’s very difficult to acquire and retain licensed electricians,” Burke said. “It’s a very competitive market.”
He employs four licensed electricians and would like to hire two more. “I would take more, but I would be happy with six,” Burke said.
In its 2016-2017 U.S. talent shortage survey, the global staffing firm Manpower Group reported that skilled trade vacancies are the hardest jobs to fill in the country. Skilled trades (electricians, carpenters, welders, bricklayers, plasterers, plumbers, masons and more) have maintained the No. 1 position in vacancies from 2010 to the present. During and after the housing downturn 2007 to 2009, the construction industry alone lost 1.5 million workers, according to the National Association of Home Builders.
Eight months after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in Texas, Sherry Vital of Port Arthur is living in a manufactured home supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency until her three-bedroom house is rebuilt. She and her husband could have moved back into their home sooner, but they wanted their elderly neighbors’ house taken care of first.
Vital says many residents in the coastal city are anxious to get new kitchen and bathroom cabinets to replace mold-infested ones that were thrown away. The problem is finding skilled carpenters to get renovation projects off the ground.
“Residents are ordering cabinets because they can’t find anyone to build them,” Vital said. “Carpenters are overwhelmed with work.”
The labor shortage has reached a crisis mode, according to Eric Thorkilsen, who is on a mission to increase the ranks in skilled trades. The chief executive of Stamford, Conn.-based This Old House Ventures, the leading U.S. brand in home improvement content, says it will be “increasingly difficult for homeowners to find skilled craftspeople to come either to do renovations or even just to make repairs without young people entering the trades and taking the place of those who are now reaching retirement age.”
A big part of the workforce problem is negative perceptions about skilled trades. Young adults often see vocational jobs as a grueling line of work offering no career advancement or financial and job security.
The reality is many workers in the skilled trades earn average or above average wages. Salaries vary depending on which field you enter. For example, the median annual wage for electricians is $52,720, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The highest 10 percent of electricians earn more than $90,420. The median annual wage for carpenters is $43,600, and the highest 10 percent earn more than $79,480.
Thorkilsen said he believes the elimination of vocational training in high schools cut off much of the pipeline for blue-collar workers. An emphasis on college readiness and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields adversely affected trade courses like woodworking and welding.
“Somewhere along the line a decision was made that everybody needs to go to college, and it was something less worthy working with your hands and doing these skilled jobs,” said Thorkilsen. “Shop class got replaced by computer science and information technology. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but why did it have to be a replacement? Why couldn’t it have been an addition? Because it truly is a fact that the satisfactions that come from successfully working with your hands, no matter what the trade is, there’s a real benefit from that.”
To close the skills gap, This Old House Ventures recently launched This Old House Generation Next, an initiative to raise funds and awareness of this issue while encouraging and empowering young adults to become skilled crafts workers.
Last year, three young apprentices were chosen from a nationwide casting call to work alongside the “This Old House” PBS-TV crew to shed light on the opportunities that careers in skilled trades can provide.
“This Old House” is accepting applications for two paid apprenticeship opportunities in the Boston area this summer for a televised project. The application deadline is May 4. For more information, visit thisoldhouse.com/contest-submission/185566/rules.
Bailey Beers, a senior at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, Maine, worked with the show’s expert crew on episodes that premiered in the fall of 2017.
“Growing up in a generation where technology is such a major focus, it was nice to show people that there is still a need for jobs like this and they are very honorable and esteemed positions to have,” said Beers, who is focused on residential building construction.
“Bailey is very bright and driven,” said Thorkilsen. “We hope her story will encourage more young women to pursue careers in the trades.”
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on building a future skilled-trades workforce.
“Chances are that if you reach out to a contractor to come do something at your home, the good ones are going to be relatively hard to schedule because they are in demand,” Thorkilsen said.
“But what needs to happen is when you make that call for the contractor going forward, there needs to be this next generation that shows up to take their place and shows up in numbers that can handle the demand.”