“The allure of building a house, and indeed the appeal of This Old House on television, has always been that it is such an authentic, hands-on, personal pursuit,” says Eric Thorkilsen, CEO of This Old House Ventures. “We are taking a leadership position in supporting the MRW Foundation’s scholarship program by reaching out to many companies and organizations and asking them to donate. It’s our way of helping to inspire as many young people as possible to go into the building trades.”
The skills gap in the U.S. is particularly acute in the construction industry, with the U.S. Department of Labor estimating that nearly 7 million jobs will need to be filled by 2024. The reason: Construction workers are retiring at the same time that construction projects are on the rise as the economy strengthens. “These are jobs that don’t require a debt-laden, four-year college degree,” says Rowe, “but they do require training.”
Although the conventional path for people in the building trades—which includes electrical, plumbing, masonry, carpentry, general contracting, landscape contracting, a host of traditional building methods known collectively as the preservation trades, and many related crafts such as furniture making—may once have been to learn from an older family member, the training avenues have multiplied. Today, they include union apprenticeships, trade schools, job centers, two-year associate degrees from community colleges, and four-year university programs that combine hands-on training with academic coursework. Remarkably, the training, in some cases, is absolutely free.
Some trade unions are actively upping their efforts to recruit young people. For example, the UA, the United Association union of plumbers, fitters, welders, and service techs, is recruiting in high schools. “We are under mandate right now to replace 20 percent of our members, the majority of whom are between 46 and 52 years old,” says Tom Bigley, UA’s director of plumbing. For a high school student, a UA apprenticeship is the equivalent of being recruited for a full-ride academic or sports scholarship to a top university: The five-year UA apprenticeship is not only free, the apprentice is paid for full-time work, receives health benefits from day one, and starts accruing pension and 401(k) benefits after a probationary period, usually six months.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) are conducting a grassroots campaign by talking to school principals, posting videos aimed at teenagers on social media, and also reaching out to parents and educators. “There’s been such a conversation around four-year college education for so long that high school guidance counselors often don’t even understand what apprenticeships are,” says Jennifer Mefford, director of business development for the labor management effort of IBEW Local 58 and NECA in Detroit, and a recruitment consultant for the construction industry. “We are also trying to have conversations with the parents of high school students who don’t know the long-term career outlook for the trades. An electrician can make as much money as an electrical engineer.” During a five-year IBEW and NECA program, says Mefford, an apprentice will earn $225,000 in wages and benefits—in stark contrast to a college student taking on debt to earn a four-year degree.