Stacey Holsinger is marketing manager and Mark Drury is vice president of business development at Shapiro & Duncan Inc., a third-generation family-owned mechanical contracting business serving customers in the Washington, D.C., area since 1976. Shapiro & Duncan is the “Provider of Choice” for complex commercial, government and institutional design-build projects that require first-rate performance, work quality and customer service.
In any career, knowledge is the pathway to moving up. This is especially true in the construction industry, where building new skills opens doors to challenging career opportunities that reward ambition, innovation and creativity while providing great pay and benefits. Our 21st century society is driven by the rise of technology and the advent of the global economy. These twin forces have led to differing expectations within the workforce about what constitutes a rewarding and fulfilling career. While it can be challenging to find people who want to be part of the construction trades, education and training are providing “express lanes” for those who recognize the unique career advantages offered by construction.
Choosing a Career in the Trades
Before we get into the details of construction-related education, training and development, take a closer look at career opportunities in the construction field. There are many career paths on which employees can feel comfortable and valued in their working environment.
In the construction trades, workers develop skills that are transportable and valuable all over the world. Tactile, hands-on learners are especially well-suited to a construction career, but people who like to work with their minds as well as their hands will find construction equally as satisfying. Moreover, construction is appealing to those who take pride in being part of a team and enjoy accomplishing something tangible every day. And don’t forget the appeal of working outside in a variety of environments, as opposed to being stuck inside at a desk.
- Income potential—The top trades in terms of income potential are plumbing, electrical and HVAC. This is because each of these trades has state-level licensure requirements. In these licensed trades, the career path starts at apprentice, progresses to licensed journeyman (who can have one apprentice working under him or her) and culminates with a master’s license. Like the bar exam for lawyers or the medical boards for doctors, a journeyman needs that master’s license to realize the full income potential of the trade. With a master’s license, the tradesman or tradeswoman can start his or her own business.
2. Career paths
- While it may not be the most lucrative career path, carpentry attracts more people because it is less technical and requires a comparatively short apprenticeship period of 2 to 3 years.
- In plumbing, the career path starts at plumber’s helper and progresses through four levels of apprentice plumber, to journeyman plumber, lead person (who has a journeyman’s license and supervises small crews of journeymen, apprentices and helpers) and master plumber. As a licensed trade, the master plumber can run his/her own plumbing business.
- According to the Independent Electrical Contractors Association, the career path for electricians starts at electrician’s helper and progresses through apprentice electrician, journeyman electrician, lead person (who has a journeyman’s license and supervises small crews of journeymen, apprentices and helpers) and master electrician. From there, the career path leads upward to area supervisor, project supervisor and estimator. Ultimately, successful electricians can move into management positions and run their own electrical contracting businesses.
- As in the plumbing and electrical trades, the HVAC trade follows the same apprenticeship, journeymen and master licensure process with unlimited possibilities for career advancement and ultimately business ownership.
Increasing the Need for Employee Education & Training
In today’s construction industry, employee education and training is all about keeping employee skills current in a business environment where technology is rapidly advancing. This is not your grandfather’s, or even your father’s, construction industry. No doubt, construction is not easy work, and that makes it even more challenging to bring people on board. Further compounding the problem is the fact that a talent exodus caused by the prolonged recession shows no sign of a turnaround. Currently, there are half a million positions that can’t be filled in the construction industry because of the workforce shortage. At the same time, increasing numbers of people, especially workers in their 50s and 60s, are retiring from the industry. As a result, the construction jobs deficit is expected to increase to 2 million by 2022.
At the same time, construction companies have to work hard to demonstrate to millennials that the industry offers a great career opportunity and a better place to work. Generally speaking, people born since the early 1980s are expecting advancement opportunities and work/life balance. Millennials are also concerned about career mobility; they don’t want to be stuck in the same position for the next 10 years.
Demonstrating the Value of a Construction Career
Rising educational costs is another key factor related to employee recruitment and development. One challenge is the heightening awareness among prospective and current employees that it is possible for a young person to work hard, earn a living with good benefits and obtain an education that will be of value to them—without being saddled with five or six figures of student loan debt.
Apprenticeships, in fact, are like obtaining a 4-year degree without the cost. The tradeoff is working full time while going to school either a couple of evenings a week or 1 to 2 days a month, depending upon the program and employer. For many, this is an appealing blend of classroom instruction and on-the-job training.
Prospective and current employees also need to know that they can have mobility within the construction field. In reality, there is always opportunity to evolve your job title and there is substantial room for growth in the field, no matter where the employee starts. Certainly, much of the impetus for career advancement in construction has to come from the individual’s attitude, ambition and aptitude. But don’t underestimate the importance of education and training in guiding willing employees toward the right career paths.
The harsh truth is that companies who do not have the best talent are not going to be successful in today’s heavily competitive environment. It takes a conscious, committed and consistent effort to develop a skilled workforce.
Training Resources for the Construction Trades
Training programs for construction workers are available in both union shops and merit (i.e., non-union) shops. For merit shops, the largest training provider nationally is Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC). This trade association offers 800 programs through 70 chapters nationwide.
ABC apprenticeship programs have articulation agreements with many community colleges, including Montgomery College in the Washington, D.C. metro area. This means the community college agrees award a certain number of college credits to individuals who successfully complete the designated apprenticeship program. At Montgomery College, 32 hours of credit are granted for the most rigerous trades.
For both merit and union shops, the most popular national training program is the one provided by the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), which is affiliated with the University of Florida. Curricula include more than 70 craft areas and a complete series of more than 70 assessments offered in over 4,000 NCCER-accredited training and assessment locations across the United States. NCCER’s apprenticeship training modules, which are used in both high schools and technical schools, is the only curriculum approved for public education use in the State of Maryland.
For young people considering a career path, our takeaway is this: You can be successful without going off to college after high school; success doesn’t have to include a dorm room in the fall. But to succeed in the construction trades, you must have the ambition to advance on your chosen career path with continuing education. Investing in yourself is a must. For employers in the construction trades, our takeaway is: You must be willing to support your employees’ career ambitions by investing in them. Just as a business invests in IT infrastructure, new equipment or facility improvements, it needs to view education, training and development as a strategic investment opportunity. Employee training and development leads to greater employee satisfaction which, in turn, yields higher retention rates and, ultimately, better productivity.