Facing labor shortage, construction industry finds hope in Pierce County youth

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Facing a labor shortage, the building industry in Pierce County is looking to boost youth interest in pursing careers in construction.

By 2028, more than 1 million craft professionals will be needed in the residential construction industry nationally, according to a press release from the Master Builders Association (MBA) of Pierce County in July. The MBA is a trade association representing 750 builders, remodelers and industry professionals in the housing and residential construction industry.

Virtually all professional trades are in high demand, including carpentry, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, roofing and painting, according to the MBA.

An analysis by Associated Builders and Contractors in March determined that construction companies will need to hire 430,000 more workers in 2021 than they employed in 2020, and that every $1 billion in extra construction spending generates an average of at least 5,700 construction jobs.

In Pierce County, where the market is hot and leaders are looking for ways to increase housing stock, more construction will mean more needed labor.

Looking ahead at projected labor shortages, Pierce County MBA is launching a partnership with the Pierce County Skills Center (PCSC) to introduce students to construction trades. PCSC offers career and technical education programs in 10 school districts across Pierce County, including Tacoma, Bethel, Eatonville, Fife, Franklin Pierce, Orting, Steilacoom, Sumner, University Place and White River. The center enrolls about 550 students.

MBA members plan to support PCSC by donating excess materials from job sites for hands-on training, providing scholarships for students to purchase tools and supplies upon graduation, attending annual job fairs and connecting students to internship opportunities that can lead to full-time employment.

In June, the MBA donated $5,000 to the center for construction trade programs. PCSC director Michelle Ledbetter said the funding will go toward its construction-trades budget, including compensating for increasing costs of products like wood for hands-on projects.

“Our partnership with Master Builders Association of Pierce County elevates program opportunities for both students and instructors,” Ledbetter said. “Donations, guest presenters, joint community service opportunities, and internships all prepare PCSC students to successfully enter the pipeline to high wage, high demand construction careers in Pierce County.”

The Pierce County Skills Center is in its ninth year of having a construction-trades program, having grown it from what was originally a half-day program. It’s now year-round with two instructors instead of one, and the program is at capacity with 66 juniors and seniors enrolled, Ledbetter told The News Tribune.

“There has definitely been an increase in student interest,” Ledbetter said.

While the construction program is at capacity right now, students interested in applying for future programs at the PCSC can do so online at bethelsd.org/pcsc. Students must be a junior or senior in high school and might need to complete the application form with a parent or guardian.

Ledbetter is excited about the partnership and improving the ability for students interested in the trades to find a job directly out of school.

According to the MBA, the top 25 percent in most construction trade professions earn at least $60,000 annually.

“Skilled tradespeople can make a great living doing something they enjoy. It should not be stereotyped as ‘blue collar’ or ‘white collar,’” said Corey Watson, 2021 president of the Master Builders Association of Pierce County. “(B)ut it will take some time for prestige of a skilled tradesperson to be looked at in the same manner as a person with a college degree.”

Watson said the labor shortage in the construction industry stretches back to the Great Recession.

“The workforce never fully rebounded from that in part because young people have been told a college degree is necessary to make a successful living. That misconception is hard to change,” Watson said. “Many small business owners that support the over 150,000 people employed in Washington’s construction industry, actually began their businesses by growing up through the trades.”

The COVID-19 pandemic made things more difficult, Watson said. Many who have lost their jobs may still be on unemployment.

“Many companies have increased their wages and in some cases are offering signing bonuses and still cannot fill all of their open positions,” Watson said. “The impact reaches virtually every trade in construction and the supply chain which provides the materials with which homes are constructed. We continue to under-produce the housing needed in our region and the labor shortage will continue to exacerbate that issue.”