Examining the Labor Shortage and What Every Contractor Should be Doing to Change It

By Karen L. Edwards, RT3 Think Tank.

It’s no secret that there is a labor shortage, not just in the roofing industry but in the trades in general. A recent article by NPR blames the 1970s and 1980s, decades where we pushed our kids to get bachelor degrees.  We frequently hear this as the reason why today’s youth don’t even consider a career in the trades.

John McManus, writing for Builder Online takes a slightly different angle in this article, reporting that there will be an estimated 3.5 million (2018-2019) high school graduates in the U.S. with 3.1 million expected to enroll in degree-granting post-high school institutions. Only 2.7 million will finish, earning associates or bachelor’s degrees.  Doing the math, that leaves nearly one million adults aged 18-22 who aren’t in college and could be recruited into the trades.

As McManus speculates in his article, the challenge is one of attraction and requires a new focus on marketing the trades to Generation Z – the kids currently in middle and high school, who will quickly outnumber the Millennials. While marketing to teens isn’t new at all, what’s different is that there are more companies doing it whose products are traditional teen products like video games or acne medicine. Charles Schwab is targeting this audience because in 10 years, these kids will have jobs and salaries and need investment services.

Just as these companies are making their products and services appealing for when Gen Z reaches post high-school age, the trades should be marketing their industries as a viable, long-lasting career opportunity to consider instead of the traditional four-year college degree.

National organizations and associations take action

The National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA) organized the first-ever  Roofing Day in D.C. for members of the roofing industry to meet with their representatives and senators to discuss issues affecting the industry and its livelihood. NRCA credits Roofing Day in D.C. with contributing to Congress’ approval of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Ace (H.R. 2353), which is expected to be signed into law any day by the President.

The bill reforms career and technical education under the Perkins Act, which had not been reauthorized by Congress since 2006. It will expand opportunities for work-based learning programs, strengthen incentives for development of industry-recognized credentials and provide new opportunities between employers and educational institutions to meet local labor needs.

WorkingNation was founded by venture capitalist Art Bilger, and exists to educate and communicate the hard truths about the looming unemployment crisis and bring the country together to create new jobs for a changing economy. The organization runs the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference and the SkillsUSA Championships in an effort to strengthen the talent pipeline to American industries by instilling valuable work-ready skills and leadership qualities within students.

There are also groups coming together to recruit and encourage minority populations to learn more about careers in construction and roofing. GirlsBuild is an organization that hosts summer camps in Oregon for girls 8 – 14 years of age to learn the basics of building, including carpentry, plumbing, electricity, concrete, sheet metal and more. The girls are taught by skilled female instructors. The program has received national attention from television host Mike Rowe through his show, “Returning the Favor.” There is such value in these programs that National Women in Roofing recently awarded scholarships to send two women from the Rutherford Housing Partnership in North Carolina to attend the camp and learn how they can replicate the model on the east coast.

What you can do in your community to help address the issue.

While these national efforts are great and will eventually make a difference, it will take time for things to shift and may take even longer for initiatives to reach your local community. It’s up to contractors to engage with their schools, service organizations and communities to try to create a shift on the local level. While that sounds like a great idea, many contractors are stumped with how to get started.

It can be as simple as reaching out to the principal at your local community schools or trade schools. See if they have career fair days for the students to learn about opportunities after they graduate. You could participate in that to share how rewarding a career in roofing can be for the student after high school.

Ask if there is a construction project that the school would like to have done where students could participate and learn what it could be like to work in the trades. Josey Parks, owner of J. Wales Enterprises, is teaming up with K-POST Roofing and Waterproofing to partner with a high school in an impoverished area of Fort Worth, Texas to work with students on constructing a fence to obscure a view the school has of a prison next door. He’s working through securing donations from suppliers to make the project happen and hopes to share his story soon.

Miron Construction Co. in Wisconsin hosted a ‘Build like a Girl’ event at their headquarters where dozens of female students gathered to work with a female carpenter to learn about framing walls, pouring concrete and operating boom lifts. The company hopes to increase the number of women interested in construction jobs.

Other community organization such as Scout troops would also most likely be willing and receptive to working together on construction projects or hosting a learning and project day for the Scouts to learn more about the industry and options for careers.

By reaching out to the schools and organizations in your community, you are helping to spread the word that it is possible to have a successful career in an industry that is elevating its professionalism, embracing technology and provides unlimited advancement opportunities.

What you should be doing within your own company.

Labor shortages are not only caused by a lack of new, young talent entering the workforce, but it can also be caused by existing workers leaving due to frustrations, lack of support and training or advancement opportunities.

Take a long look inside your company and evaluate your culture. Are you providing your team with opportunities to learn, to grow and to lead? Are you taking advantage of training and educational classes for your team that are offered by the industry associations? Are you allowing them to attend the industry conferences and expositions that will allow them to see and learn about the latest technologies, tools and methods?

It’s important to create a culture that promotes and supports your team. When you have a happy team, they will be a loyal team and will stay for the long-term. They will also become some of your best recruiters for finding the right workers to join your team. Instituting referral bonuses and hiring bonuses can also make a career with your company more appealing.

The bottom line is that it’s going to take all of us working together, on the national level, on the local level and within each of our individual companies to spread the word about the opportunities that a career in the trades and in particular, the roofing industry, has to offer.