News flash. Skilled labor shortage is a wicked problem not confined to the construction trades.
We've written here about the wicked problem: "Why Don't Young Americans Want to Do Construction Work?"
Answering the question doesn't come close to solving the challenge.
A pathway to doing that might be to look at how other business sectors, not just the construction trades, are also experiencing worker shortages.
Here, a new Pew Research piece from senior writer Drew DeSilver analyzes Bureau of Labor Statistics data that illustrates the extensiveness of this wicked problem. DeSilver writes that, nationally and across sectors, job openings are at historically high levels:
Another way of looking at the vacancies data is the job openings rate, which is calculated by dividing the total number of openings by the sum of total employment and openings. (The higher the rate, the greater the nation’s unmet demand for labor.) The openings rate was a robust 3.8% in March, close to the high of 4% set in July 2015 and matched in July 2016. Like the total number of job openings, the openings rate bottomed out in July 2009, at 1.7%.
The point here is that construction's leaders might do well to understand that the nature of the occupations in skilled construction--hard work, long days, and uncomfortable conditions--is not necessarily the reason more young people won't pursue these occupations as careers. Other business and industry sectors, namely professional/business services and healthcare/social assistance have proportionately higher job opening rates than others. DeSilver writes:
Both had well over 1 million job openings in March – about two-thirds more than the sector with the third-highest number, accommodation and food services. The openings rates in both the healthcare/social assistance sector and the professional/business services sector were above 5%; outside of these, only the catchall “other services” sector had an openings rate above 5%.
Again, what this data suggests is that the wicked problem is wider spread than just construction, and that conclusions that explain it, such as "kids these days just don't want to do the hard jobs like pouring slabs in the 99-degree heat" don't fully explain the reasons. Nor do those conclusions begin to offer solutions.
Work we're seeing that may do better to add clarity about why young people are averse to filling our need for skilled construction labor comes from the Shift Commission, a Bloomberg L.P.-backed deep dive in to American work and technology. One of the study's key findings was this:
Most importantly, workers crave stability. On average, only people who make $150,000 a year or more say they value doing work that is important to them. Everyone else prioritizes an income that is stable and secure. Yet fewer than half of Americans earn a stable amount every month.
Say all you want about our new generation of young adults' aversion to physically hard work in tough conditions. The more relevant issue, and one where construction skills share a kinship with other occupational sectors where job openings outnumber job candidates, might well be the lack of stability in these careers.
And like these other occupations, construction's lack of stability is double-edged--cyclical and structural. The severity of risk on both edges of the blade is clear. The Great Recession's wipe-out of more than half of residential construction's skilled labor positions has left deep, seemingly permanent scars on the one hand. On the other, technology--automation and robotics, data, artificial intelligence, and materials science--conspires to challenge job security among skilled workers in a nearer and nearer future.
The two ideas here are these. One is that those looking for solutions to the labor shortage crisis in skilled construction might look to other industry sectors to see how best practices emerge in those other disciplines.
The other is this. An individual can hedge both cyclical and structural risk to job security and stability these days by not only getting trained as a skilled laborer, but by getting concurrently versed and skilled in working with machine learning, teaching the robots, and coding the data.
Shortages in labor capacity are not simply a function of not enough good training availability, but rather spring from too few people opting to get trained. If more people knew that learning a skilled construction trade would come with learning technology proficiency that would future-proof their careers, more might opt in on construction as a livelihood. Maybe Tyler Cowen is wrong after all. Maybe it's fear, not complacency, that keeps young people from picking up a hammer and doing a lick of work on a job site.