Tyler Cowen may be onto something here with his take on American complacency. Cowen is an economist at George Mason University and an author. His latest title is "The Complacent Class."

And this, in our minds, relates to what 63% of our Builder 100 survey respondents among home building's top 200 companies tell us is their biggest worry right now. Labor.

Here's important insight on home building labor's "gorilla in the room" issue: Why there are fewer and fewer young people entering construction trades.

As harsh a light as this analysis throws on one of residential development and construction's biggest pain points, it's critical in a couple of ways for home building's business leaders to recognize what they're up against at this level of detail. They're certainly smacking into the issue in a real way every day in the field on the job sites, as this story attests.

National Association of Home Builders assistant VP for survey research Rose Quint dives into results of a national, demographically representative poll of 18 to 25 year olds on whether they're apt to choose a construction trade as their occupation. Quint opens her analysis with this sobering data point:

The majority of young adults (74%) say they know the field in which they want to have a career. Of these, only 3% are interested in the construction trades.

Quint offers top line findings on the whys and wherefores of what attracts the few who are choosing to learn construction skills as they enter their careers, and what repels so many who wouldn't pick the field "no matter what the pay." Here's a nugget from the research:

The 63% of undecided young adults who indicated there was no or little chance they would consider a career in the trades no matter the pay were prodded about the reasons for their resoluteness. The two most common reasons are wanting a less physically-demanding job (48%) and the belief that construction work is difficult (32%). They were then asked if there was any compensation level that might entice them to reconsider a career in the trades. For slightly more than 20%, that number is either $75,000 or $100,000, but for the plurality (43%), there is no amount of money that could make them give the trades a second thought.

So, for more than two of every five 18 to 25-year olds, you couldn't pay them enough to change their minds about the kind of careers they could have if they started into the construction trades.

Quint notes that, in a number of ways, perception is part of the problem. Young adults today don't see a great, good-paying career path in the skilled trades.

In order to more concretely understand young adults’ perception of the financial benefits of a career in the construction trades, the survey asked how much they thought people in the construction trades earn annually. Ten percent said they didn’t know. Of the other 90 percent, 9 percent think the figure is under $25,000; 34 percent think it is between $25,000 and $50,999; another 34 percent between $51,000 and $75,999; 11 percent between $76,000 and $100,000; and only 2 percent think people in the construction trades can earn upwards of $100,000 a year (Exhibit 10). Summarized in one number, young adults think the typical (median) salary of a person in the trades is around $56,150 a year.

The share of young adults who think annual salaries in the construction trades can top $75,000 is low and does not vary significantly across gender, racial/ethnic, or urban/rural groups, ranging from 11 percent to at most 14 percent.

The current chronic and until-further-notice challenge around labor capacity, shortages, labor cost pressures, costly delays in construction scheduling, etc. may distort take-aways from Rose Quint's analysis, but here are a few:

  • Clearly, this is sharp evidence that immigrant laborers--a labor workforce at risk--are not taking jobs from young Americans who want these jobs.
  • Misgivings and misperceptions about what a skilled-labor career path looks like and what it yields in terms of a gratifying livelihood may be at the core of the challenge of attracting more young people to the field.
  • It's not all about money, although some of those misperceptions may include lower expectations and assumptions about the pay young people think they'd earn if they go into a skilled trade occupation.

It's difficult not to think of terms "Drive" author Daniel Pink articulates when it comes to the challenge of attracting skilled construction labor's next generation workforce. Pink talks about "autonomy, mastery, and purpose," as innate, fundamental motivators that people strive for and want out of their work.

The opportunity to re-MAP--mastery, autonomy, and purpose--young Americans to the mastery of building technologies, automation, building information modeling, workflows, inter-operability, connectivity, componentization, responsiveness, resilience, renewability, etc., the autonomy of working in a gig-economy, serialized, on-demand, project by project business environment, and the purpose underlying making new communities of people, might be one builders, manufacturers, associations, trainers, and educators, might seize on.

It does seem to us, as it appears to NAHB economist Quint, that a big part of the construction labor problem is perception vs. reality. But it also may trace to what Tyler Cowen means when he talks about our complacency challenge.

If you look at lower earners–how many years people stay at home, that a lot of them are less likely to get married, or aspire to own their own home or cars, how many extra hours they spend playing video games or watching pornography or smoking marijuana. To me those are signs of a kind of complacency. There’s a new paper by Erik Hurst and he measures a lot of the less-skilled, out-of-work males and he thinks they are actually very happy or they at least think their situation is OK. The lack of fundamental social opposition to what is going on at all income levels I would call a form of complacency.

What do you think?