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Stuck in the Middle

Workforce Development

By Kirstyn Quandt, from NCCER blog

Middle age, middle seat and middle skills all have one perceived thing in common: mediocrity.

It is our nature as human beings to find the average and ordinary inadequate. We are taught by parents, instructors and role models from a young age to crave optimum success and that the combination of carefully chosen four-year degrees, internship experience and stellar letters of recommendation are the all-access ticket to a good career and steady pay. To pursue any other avenue deemed non-traditional, including the commonly referred to “middle skill” careers in the construction industry evokes great skepticism and concern from those around us. The subpar connotation of the “middle” label combined with the media’s undesirable portrayal of construction workers, continues to steer the future workforce away from careers in construction. Unfortunately, the continued use of this derogatory term clouds the true innovation and unparalleled skill of our industry.

If we are to effectively recruit, train and retain the next generation of craft professionals, the terminology used to describe our talent pipeline must communicate and reflect the opportunities for employment, growth and success that accompany a career in construction. With labor shortages more evident now than ever, our industry cannot afford to be stuck in the middle any longer.

TERMINOLOGY TIMELINE

Workers in our industry have previously been referred to as hands, work hands and tradesman, all of which communicate that the everyday construction worker is merely a replaceable resource or commodity. If you have ever tried to construct, install or repair any number of complicated projects even in or on your own home, you know that highly trained professionals are anything but replaceable and instead, are essential to the longevity and functionality of the places we cherish most. These innocently-misguided terms used to describe our craft professionals fail to represent the rigorous training, credentials, professionalism and strong work ethic belonging to the individual underneath the hard hat. By referring to them as anything other than highly skilled professionals, we are ultimately devaluing the work they do.

While we have made great strides in abolishing many of the terms above, we are unfortunately still subject to other negative classifications including the stigmatized label of a blue collar industry. Blue collar and white collar careers are continuously pitted against one another in the media and in everyday conversation and the path towards a blue collar career is undoubtedly portrayed as the less desirable choice. As a result, the “blue” classification illustrates careers in the construction industry as inadequate and undesirable: two adjectives that today’s aspiring young professionals don’t commonly include in their dream job descriptions. This misconstrued model of career success suggests that by simply swapping blue for white, you’re guaranteed to earn more money and live a happier, more successful life. However, recent data has proven this to be untrue. The 2015 Best Industry Ranking Report published by TINYpulse, surveyed more than 500 organizations and over 30,000 employees across 12 distinct industries and found that construction workers are the happiest employees. So why aren’t students pursuing these rewarding careers in our industry?

High schools used to offer shop classes and vocational training for those students who expressed interest in hands-on training; however, many programs were discontinued with the explosion of the four-year degree frenzy and its re-shaping of postsecondary education. While our industry can take an individual’s passion and develop it into a finely tuned skill set, many choose to forgo blue collar career opportunities simply because white collar has continually been presented as the more successful, smarter choice. With society’s reluctance to change, if we are to permanently shed the long standing, blue collar label, we must design a new, brighter picture of our industry that reflects the golden standard of professionalism we know to be true.

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Kate Holzhauser of Chevron Phillips Chemical is one example of an industry professional taking a step in the right direction. In a 2016 issue of Business and Industry Connection (BIC) Magazine, Holzhauser described the construction industry as having an abundance of “gold collar” opportunities in careers such as welders, pipefitters, riggers, electricians and instrumentation technicians. Due to their high salaries, training and opportunities for advancement, she emphasized that these careers are not only having positive effects on the industry, but helping society thrive.

In keeping with the gold standard label, Deputy Executive Director of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), Steve DeWitt, combatted the blue collar label by saying, “As a consumer who has hired craft professionals, I certainly understand the high skills that are required. Anyone who has called a plumber or electrician to have work done on their home, understands that ‘gold’ is what you want as opposed to silver, bronze or blue.”

When the AC goes out in the middle of August, the last thing you want is for a middle-skilled technician to show up to try and fix it. But to take this even further, think about the bridges you drive across every day, the refineries that fuel your car, the schools your children attend, the office building you work in or the power plant that supplies your electricity. Do you want these to be built and maintained by people with average skills? Of course not, we want to know with confidence that our roads, refineries, buildings and power plants are constructed not only with quality products but that they are built and maintained by qualified, skilled craft professionals. NCCER supports the growing view of students in career and technical education (CTE) programs being referred to as gold collar because they are the industry’s most valuable recruitment target.

Although we have been led to believe that four-year degrees constitute professionalism, a diploma on the wall is no longer enough in today’s competitive job market and therefore, it’s time we change the way we talk about nontraditional career paths. Dr. Michael Sandroussi, president of the Craft Training Center of Coastal Bend in Corpus Christi, Texas was quoted saying, “You talk about blue collar workers. The students who are graduating through our high school programs are making up to $1,500-$2,000 a week when they graduate. So I don’t know if that’s blue collar. I believe it’s more than blue collar, and the need for these skilled individuals in the industry is only growing every day.” While combined efforts in many industry sectors are working to combat the blue collar classification, another, more detrimental label has taken its place and what’s worse, we are unknowingly fueling its fire.

STUCK IN THE “MIDDLE”

Today, a career in the construction industry is described as a middle skilled occupation. Any industry professional finds this mislabeling humorous as they rattle off the multiple training levels, certifications and credentials that outline the grit of their resume. Unfortunately, when we quickly brush off the mislabeling, what we often pay little attention to is the effect that this portrayal has on our industry’s growth and image. We forget that the mediocre words used to describe our industry carry over into the way parents explain construction to their children and finds its way into conversation amongst peers as the classic fall back alternative in case college doesn’t work out. By unknowingly utilizing degrading terminology, we have potentially created a recruitment obstacle for our industry that when coupled with the already-present skills gap, makes for a colossal barrier to overcome. Any individual, when given the choice between jobs labeled as high, middle or low skill, would shy away from low and middle since skill level is directly equated with both salary and success. The term middle skill, in regards to careers in construction, elicits thoughts of average work and easily replaceable workers.

The National Skills Coalition defines middle skills as those which “require education beyond high school but not a four-year degree” and “make up the largest part of the labor market in the United States and in each of the 50 states.” The annual report also notes that the demand for these jobs is on the rise with 48% of 2014-2024 job openings in the United States expected to fall into the commonly referred to “Forgotten Middle” category. With such a vast need for skilled workers in our industry, we should be seeing an influx of workers to match. Instead, our recruitment efforts are suffering due to a potent mixture of the lackluster terminology being used by industry organizations and the tendency of high school graduates to pursue college degrees.

Brookings Institution’s, “The Future of Middle-Skill Jobs,” classified high skill, middle skill and low skill jobs based on the parameters of training and education level. Comprised of any amount of education between high school graduation and the completion of a four-year college degree, the middle skill category encompasses everything from associate’s degrees, vocational certificates, on-the-job training and previous work experience to incomplete college coursework. ACTE reports that graduates in Virginia, Texas and Colorado with technical or applied science associate degrees out-earn bachelor’s degree holders by $2,000-$11,000 in their first year after graduation. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education reports that the graduation rate of high school students enrolled in CTE programs is 93% compared to the 80% average national freshman graduation rate of those not enrolled in CTE programs. It’s interesting to note amongst all of the success stories fueling these statistics, the groups above still fall into the “middle skill” category based on the level of education completed.

Undoubtedly, high school graduates seek out and analyze a great deal of information as they are frantically searching for jobs and making career choices. In today’s competitive market, statistics on projected job growth and forecasted salary earnings are highly valued and even more, influence the career paths that are chosen. According to Pew Research Center in 2015, more than one in three workers belonged to the tech-savvy millennial generation. Their growing presence in the workforce and inclination towards innovative, digital companies makes our industry’s recruitment of craft professionals, one tough feat. When you combine this fact with the less-than desirable language we use to promote our industry, it’s clear that change is necessary.

IT’S NOT A “MIDDLE” SKILLS GAP

Almost any article or blog post you read on the construction industry mentions the alarming shortages and skills gap. But you don’t hear them mentioning a “middle” skills gap and that tiny distinction carries colossal importance. Students pursue college degrees with the assumption that university accolades equate to automatic job offers and a blossoming 401k. Unfortunately, many studies show the opposite. According to the Harvard Business School report “Bridge the Gap: Rebuilding America’s Middle Skills” (poor choice of title), there are too many students pursuing degrees in fields with little demand and too few who have highly marketable skills employers seek. The gap stems from the fact that high school graduates are pursuing career paths without all of the information to make well-educated decisions and that as an industry, we are failing to promote careers in construction as a worthy option.

For the fifth year in a row, Manpower Group’s Talent Shortage Survey reported that employers are struggling to fill positions due to potential employees having a lack of technical skills, soft skills and limited experience. In 2015 they reported that companies are looking for candidates with industry-specific professional qualifications and skilled trade certificates: a winning combination that few others offer aside from the construction industry. Therefore, it is clear that students must go one step further than the monotonous learn, memorize and repeat routine they have become accustomed to in school. Unfortunately, without the motivation and push from educators who frequently teach to college admittance exams, this critical step falls short.

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Across the country, CTE programs are committed to this important inclusion of hands on training that forges a connection between textbook material and real world application. Studies continue to show that students are benefiting greatly from the enrollment in CTE programs and ultimately, that this style of training is redefining education and the idea of postsecondary success. According to ACTE, CTE prepares students to be both college- and career-ready by providing a well-rounded mix of academic, employability and technical skills.

In a Huffington Post article, “High-Level Academics + CTE=Success in College and Work,” Patte Barth, director for the Center for Public Education, classifies groups of students who participated in CTE programs as those with “high credentials.” She notes that those who completed an occupational concentration and had focused career training in high school had a better chance to earn higher wages and obtain good jobs than those who finished some college but had no career training in high school as well as two-year degree holders. So how do we communicate these opportunities for success with the future workforce?

Lynn Hartnett, career and college counselor commented in a Build Your Future (BYF) initiative video that what we need to push is postsecondary training in whatever form the individual deems fit, whether that is industry training or a college degree. An integral part of this equation is the perception of our industry and the image we present to the future workforce. While we have constantly fought the collegiate image of postgraduate success, we have yet to address how the language we use to discuss construction craft professionals is making recruitment more difficult in the industry. We can no longer afford to be acquainted with the “Forgotten Middle” because we run the risk of eventually becoming a forgotten industry.

As professionals, we know the vast amount of knowledge and rigorous training involved in construction qualifies our workforce as anything but middle of the road. For example, in a typical workday, a pipefitter will calculate as many, if not more, mathematical equations to ensure the accuracy of every fit and angle, than an engineer. Unfortunately, from simply scanning the newsfeeds, society does not draw the same conclusions. Our craft professionals are highly skilled, hardworking individuals that just like any other industry professional, have a sound work ethic and commitment to quality work. The construction industry emphasizes the need to be career-ready, but this involves more than showing up on site with a hard hat and steel-toed boots. When we can effectively communicate to the masses the intricate combination of work, training and skill that our professionals possess, the future workforce will begin to view construction as a worthy path to pursue after graduation. By changing the conversation and the way we promote construction, we can begin putting a dent in our workforce shortages.

IMPROVING INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALISM

Society and the media constitute professionalism as a tailored suit, color coordinated pocket square and finely polished pair of dress shoes, but the term is not confined to the four walls of a corporate office. Instead, it encompasses numerous career paths, skill sets and industries that exemplify hard work and high skill. Even Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a professional as, “characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession.” There is a massive disconnect between how the construction industry is perceived by the public and the hard working professionalism we know to be true which is evidenced further by the lack of young students pursuing careers in our industry. We must continue to forge the critical connection between industry and education in order to redefine our industry and recruit the future workforce.

In an iconic speech given by J. Doug Pruitt, Chairman of the Board for Sundt Construction at SkillsUSA in 2016, listeners were challenged to think about their lives and where they would be without construction. Pruitt painted a picture of waking up each morning and turning on a light switch that received electricity from a power plant that was built and maintained by construction craft professionals; he talked about turning on the faucet for a morning shower that receives water from a plant that was built and maintained by craft professionals. He continued to describe morning commutes in cars manufactured at plants built and maintained by craft professionals and the intricate roadways, mile-spanning bridges and expertly weaved interstates that paint an incredibly more accurate job description of our craft professionals than any middle skill label. His impactful speech had the audience fixated on how the contributions of construction are all around us and impacts everyone’s lives every day. Undoubtedly, the men and women responsible for building society’s infrastructure are skilled and the ways in which we discuss their professions should reflect our innermost respect for the entire industry.

Terms such as blue collar and middle skills combat the progressive initiatives we put into place and contribute to the lack of perceived professionalism in the construction industry. While enhancing the inclusion of CTE programs across the country and incorporating advertisements featuring the industry as one of opportunity are powerful on their own, that same thread of unwavering industry dignity must be carried all the way from the drafting of recruitment plans to off the clock conversations. Pruitt was quoted in an interview saying, “When I was a kid, the term blue collar was not derogatory. Back then, people were not concerned with each other’s professions or out earning their neighbors; they were more concerned with their yard looking good and their kids being raised right. The broad spectrum of success is about your contribution to society, not labels.”

This idea that one’s contribution and hard work constitutes success is nothing new, but when coupled with the promotion of our industry, can prove to be a groundbreaking message that ignites great, lasting change. Pruitt continued to say, “These people are professionals. They are brilliant, but they don’t have four-year degrees.” With the current, unilateral view of success and our use of outdated language that fuels it, it’s clear we have a plethora of obstacles in our path. We must be cautious to not add to the mix as derogatory terms have previously done and instead, assure our language reflects the multiple opportunities in construction to earn a good living, support oneself and a family, and advance as a professional. In the midst of all of our planning and outreach, we must communicate that our workforce is comprised of skilled craft professionals with determination and drive.

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THE FIRST STEP

It is clear the words we use to describe our industry can make a big difference. In 2011, NCCER made a conscious commitment to utilize the term “craft professionals” and since then, we have seen its adoption across the country. If one organization has the power to spark a change, imagine what our entire industry could do. There will always be opportunities for image enhancement and standardized training to progress and evolve with industry trends, but right now, our industry needs a language adjustment and with combined efforts, we can create a terminology revolution.

By changing the way we talk about our craft professionals, we can finally give our industry and the men and women who comprise it, the respect and appreciation they deserve. DeWitt ended his interview with NCCER by commenting, “If the industry isn’t using preferred terms, there is little hope of ensuring others will.” If we continue referring to construction as a middle skill industry, it will eventually fall off of the career possibility radar and we will be left with shortages and a skills gap far greater than we had ever imagined. While change can be scary, the success of our craft professionals and the longevity of our industry are dependent upon just that. It’s time we share our confidence in the crafts with society and let the language we use reflect our unwavering, passionate commitment. The first, long overdue step in the right direction is to toss the middle skills label.

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