The construction industry has been facing some tough challenges as of late. Supply chain issues and increased demand for inventory are contributing factors. There’s also the labor shortage. According to one estimate, the industry needs to take on more than 1.4 million additional workers over the next few years just to keep up with demand.
A significant part of the industry’s labor problems surrounds education. Those who have gained qualifications rarely see a salary and prospects in construction they have been led to believe can stem from their learning. On the other hand, entry-level employees in the construction industry are rarely provided the educational tools to make a meaningful career progression. The combination of these factors is not just failing to attract workers to the industry, it also means the industry is missing chances to nurture intelligent and creative innovators.
We’re going to examine the education gap in the construction industry a little closer. How is it creating a negative impact and what can be done to change the tide?
How we got here
The education gap in the construction industry and indeed most trades has almost certainly been partially the result of systemic inequalities. It is not usually the case that those stuck in lower-rung construction jobs are there because they don’t have the intelligence or talent to thrive, but because they don’t have the resources.
Formal education in the U.S. is an expensive prospect. This isn’t just from the perspective of tuition fees — though, the fact these are skyrocketing certainly contributes. Going to university is an unattainable luxury for those who need to prioritize supporting their families or are unable to access sufficient funding and loans to take care of living expenses. This country has a deeply ingrained cyclical system of financial inequality in which those who come from families with wealth have privileged access to education, assets, and opportunities. These inherited wealthy, therefore, continue to thrive and pass this privilege onto their children. Inversely, the poorest of our population are shut out from the education that can help them to innovate and break the cycles of poverty.
It’s also important to consider how the trades over the years have developed a reputation of being less intellectually or talent-driven professions. Yet, to thrive in the construction industry often requires an understanding of engineering principles and business savvy. The construction industry’s image is a problem in attracting an educated workforce. Indeed, though workers may be keen to engage in formal education, there is no tradition of sponsorship you may find in white-collar professions.
Educating about education
One of the first areas the industry needs to focus on is promoting education among workers. It is no longer enough for developers to rely upon the accumulation of skills and experiences over a long career. This doesn’t serve the needs of the industry and it certainly doesn’t improve the lives of entry-level workers. Unfortunately, not a lot of effort is put into talking to entry-level workers about the potential benefits of gaining a more specialist education.
This is a strange approach to take, as it is not one reflected in many other industries. One-to-one reviews focused on finding ways to improve skills are a common feature in office-based and even retail professions. Construction leadership must provide practical, clear careers guidance to trade workers. Talk about how specific qualifications can open doors to new jobs. Discuss what new technological developments are coming down the pipeline and how gaining expertise in those fields can help them forge a lucrative path. Most importantly, make this advice practical. Letting workers know these opportunities exist without giving them the tools to establish a route forward is not going to solve the education gap.
To be able to offer practical advice, though, construction leaders need to be more active in learning about their workers. Each employee that hasn’t had access to education will have their reasons for this. While many of the hurdles to learning are financial, some are likely to be more nuanced. Some will have been discouraged from further education due to learning difficulties. Others may not feel they thrive in a classroom environment. When you learn more about their workers’ experiences in education, you have a better ability to identify and suggest more appropriate solutions.
Many of the problems revolving around the educational gap in tradespeople occur long before individuals take jobs on construction sites. However, industry leaders have an ethical duty and a business imperative to break these cycles once workers reach them. One of the most effective ways to approach this is through internal talent development programs.
This is about providing clear paths to progression and incentives to all workers. It may be best to structure your talent development program around providing resources to meet current and future areas of need. This isn’t just technical skills, like engineering. Construction companies are businesses and they require skilled leaders to make sure they continue to thrive and innovate. Identifying tradespeople keen to progress toward leadership or have reached a career plateau and providing them access to a master of business administration (MBA) course can be beneficial to everyone. They have a chance to gain an education they may not have previously been able to afford and you’ll be providing them with the skills your business needs to survive in the long term.
However, formal education is not in every business’ budget. Also, not all workers will be well suited to a degree. In this case, it can be important to set up mentorship protocols in every role of your business — from risk assessment to project management. This helps to make sure workers can progress in different areas of career interest and pursue a practical education that will serve them, your company, and the industry well.
The education gap in the construction industry is actively causing disruption. While this issue has its roots in wider systemic problems, leaders are not powerless to respond. Communicate with your employees about the benefits and imperatives for education and commit to an effective talent development program. With your support and your workers’ input, there are opportunities to tackle the oncoming challenges.
About the Author:
Jori Hamilton is an experienced writer residing in the Northwestern U.S. She covers a wide range of topics but takes a particular interest in covering topics related to business productivity and marketing strategies.
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