The local construction labor force is working overtime to make the Twin Cities’ current development boom a reality.
But aging demographics and the workforce’s depleted ranks have everyone in the business, from state officials to small subcontractors, worried about where the next generation of workers will be coming from.
One strategy to deal with the current and future labor-supply shortfalls is now ramping up. It’s an effort by an industry and labor coalition to introduce inner-city high school students to the potentially lucrative benefits of learning a construction trade.
Called the Construction Careers Pathway Initiative, it’s being coordinated by the Construction Careers Foundation, a nonprofit led by construction business owners, management firms, trade associations and labor leaders who have dedicated themselves to recruiting young men and women of diverse ethnic backgrounds into the business.
That’s a daunting task in Minnesota, the initiative’s leaders said. The labor shortage, which is affecting many areas of the state economy, is especially acute for the construction industry.
The current construction workforce is notably homogeneous, overwhelmingly dominated by white, male baby boomers who are quickly approaching retirement age. Many of them came from farming backgrounds and entered construction in the 1970s and 1980s when farming consolidated and the rural economy struggled.
Compounding the shortage was the devastating toll the Great Recession took on the construction industry. With few projects being built from 2006 until around 2012, an entire cohort of younger workers were diverted onto other career paths, leaving even fewer potential replacements for the baby boomers.
“The new workforce will have to come from elsewhere, and it’s probably not going to look much like the current one,” said Construction Careers Foundation Executive Director Pat Wagner, who is coordinating the recruitment initiative. “We have to reach out to city kids of all ethnicities, both boys and girls, who may never have had any exposure at all to building trades to let them know this is a very viable career option.”
The Pathway Initiative’s strategy focuses on working with the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts to promote construction careers, offer summer internships and boost the number of “shop” classes offered during the academic year.
After landing $2 million in state funding in 2016, the initiative is now also gearing a up a new marketing push, including a new website called constructioncareers.org.
The Pathway Initiative partners include the Associated General Contractors Association of Minnesota and members such as J.E. Dunn Construction, Ryan Cos., M.A. Mortenson Co. and McGough Construction Co.; and the St. Paul and Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Councils on the labor side.
One of its most active partners is the MN Trades Academy, a paid summer construction internship experience for inner-city youth administered by the Building Trades Council and local school districts. Student participants this week, for instance, were busy on a project to build a “tiny home” at St. Paul Central High School.
Trades Academy Director Sam Ebute said such programs are especially relevant after decades of declining support for “hands-on” career classes within public schools in favor of postsecondary tracks.
“I worked for the Minneapolis schools for nearly 20 years and the emphasis was always ‘college-ready, college-ready, college-ready,’ ” he said. “Now, though, the district’s 2020 strategic vision has changed to ‘college-and-career-ready.’ Kids weren’t really given the option of considering construction careers, where you can make a good, living wage right out of high school.
“The Trades Academy program has been around for 14 years and we’ve always emphasized diversity, going into communities where kids have faced barriers to employment and letting them know there’s a viable alternative to a college degree available to them.”
Don Jacobson is a freelance writer based in St. Paul. He is the former editor of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Real Estate Journal.