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The Changing Construction Worker Profile: A New Perspective?

(Cover Photo by Mathilda Khoo on Unsplash)

Like the housing crisis, the skilled labor shortage is a matter-of-fact challenge felt by companies across the industry. There are a handful of reason for this but two are the most widely accepted. First, is the "aging-out" phenomenon (where the number of retirees exceeds the number of entrants at a point in time). Today for example, the retirees entered the workforce during the 1980's when construction jobs were still considered to be a great career choice for high school graduates. Second, is the flattening (and in some cases per image below, the dropping) of construction wages over time.

Another approach to understanding what is taking place here is to also acknowledge the "changing" profile of the construction professional.

It’s time to drop the old stereotype of the uneducated, hyper-masculine worker. The planet, the market, and society all need a more aspirational image for construction workers: a higher value for training, more respect for their work, a higher bar for what we build and how we build it. Fortunately, the shift has begun.

Women Are Everywhere in Construction Today

When you think of women in construction, what image comes to mind? Perhaps it’s Rosie the Riveter, the allegorical cultural icon made popular during WWII. This image has accompanied women’s struggle for equality in the workplace ever since. Ironically, of course, women have always worked in the skilled trades. The concept of Rosie was based on Naomi Parker - a real person. Women have been in the industry as long as men.

But ego, hyper-masculinity and other forms of bravado, are elements of construction site culture that present resistance to the presence of women. Fortunately, this culture is fading away. We are seeing much more representation of women in construction today. According to the National Association of Women in Construction, women represent 10% of today’s workforce.

The awareness and activism around women in construction continues to build momentum. Check out the 2020 teaser of Hard Hatted Woman, the first feature-length documentary telling the story of women in the construction trades . The struggle for respect and acknowledgement continues. Especially because of the housing crisis, it won’t be long before we see the percentage of women in construction double.

Automation Is Not A Threat

When we talk about the changing workforce, some of us might also conjure up thoughts about automation. In a recent McKinsey report on the post-pandemic workforce, 85% of companies have accelerated digitization of employee interaction and 67% have accelerated automation and artificial intelligence. Those are big numbers.

As construction folks, we often interpret these advances as a threat to our jobs. But we should welcome the day a robot can take on menial tasks. Today’s construction industry needs our brains as much as it needs our brawn.

Professionals Are Making the Switch

Interestingly, the changing workforce isn't just apparent when looking at data on gender or automation. There's something else going on here, something unexpected.

Jo Phillips is an apprentice carpenter for a construction services company in Los Altos, California. She used to be a Project Manager directing superintendents. In her new role, she’s working alongside with and learning from them.

Sanjil Karki is mechanical engineer who spent the early part of his professional career optimizing energy and water consumption for existing building systems. Today, he walks jobsites with the contractors and takes carpentry and electrical classes in the evenings.

Transitioning from desk jobs to hard-labor jobs may sound like an unorthodox career move to some, but to others, it’s a wise lifestyle decision - better hours, tangible results, and skilled trade knowledge you can apply to all aspects of your life.

When people like Jo and Sanjil join the trades, they bring a wealth of new knowledge with them that we can all benefit from. Jo worked for years as a project manager in the nonprofit space, while Sanjil comes from a mechanical engineering background. They have both steered their careers towards field-based, hands-on construction work.

Why would educated professionals make a deliberate choice to leave desk jobs and grab a hammer to pound nails?

Their answers are inspiring.

Jo Phillips: From Philanthropy to Apprentice Carpentry

After graduating from college in 2012, Jo Phillips spent 9 months traveling around Europe. She recalls the trip as an amazing experience, but not just because of the food or the history. For Jo, it was all about the home stay experience. In exchange for free accommodation, she helped her hosts with their home construction projects, farm work and other domestic needs.

This experience would be life altering for her as she traveled and worked in 14 European countries over 9 months. One of her biggest takeaways was realizing the respect that workers of all professions received in Denmark.

“You could be a painter, a doctor, a lawyer, a trash collector - each profession was considered essential by the community and given the same respect,” says Jo. “There’s a negative connotation that goes alone with construction work, here in the states, and there shouldn’t be.”

After Jo’s return from Europe in 2014, she was convinced that a career in the construction trades was her calling.

“Now I was open to a career that would have never even been on my radar before. But working with my hands, in a non-political environment, and physically seeing what I was working on were all attractive aspects.”

The only problem was that she had no idea how to get a job in the industry.

Should she go to a construction management school? That wouldn’t teach her how to become a carpenter. And the union would likely prepare her for commercial work, whereas she was interested in residential. She opted for joining AmeriCorps, the federally sponsored service organization which places people in nonprofit organizations around the country. Because of Jo’s construction interest, she was placed with a housing non-profit called Rebuilding Together and spent the next several years coordinating housing projects for volunteer workers. Though it didn’t put a hammer in her hand as often as she would have liked, Jo used this opportunity to learn more about how the construction industry operates and ultimately leveraged her relationships with builders to land herself a job in the for-profit world. She began as a assistant project manager and then later made the move to apprentice carpenter. But she learned a lot of other hard truths about the industry along the way.

“Barriers are low, but the path into the construction trades is not obvious.”

She was also surprised by the lack of standardized training.

“We have traveling nurses who can go and work anywhere because training is standardized. As an apprentice carpenter, I’ll get instructed to apply window flashing differently depending on who’s guiding me. These techniques don’t just differ between regions of the country, but between companies in the same region, and sometimes, between job foreman at the same company!”

Unlike in Denmark, where everyone is equally respected for their contributions to society, there’s a negative stigma with construction work here in the US. Very few young people aspire to become a construction worker.

“If you are going to college, you’re not even looking at the trades.”

What can our education system do to change this?

Sanjil Karki: From Energy Consultant to Trades Enthusiast

Sanjil’s first job out of college in 2013 was working in the capacity of energy optimization for a large biotech campus. Sitting on roughly 8 million sqft of space, 30 of the 40 buildings were decades old and operating with low energy efficiency compared with the newer buildings operating at 50% or 60% more efficiency. The annual energy bill was over $40M!

“Buildings account for 40% of energy use in the US and the biggest energy user in the buildings is its HVAC system. California regulators are pushing for regulations that increase energy efficient building design along with making it more comfortable for occupants.”

It was at that moment that Sanjil became really curious about the new building technologies that operate so much more efficiently than the old. Not only did he want to learn more, he wanted to learn how he could do the installations himself. This way, he figured, he could share the knowledge with others and spread the impact of the solutions.

“All the buzzwords you hear these days - all-electric buildings, Zero Net Energy buildings, passive house...Now is a great time to get into construction.”

He immediately thought of his home country, Nepal, where most buildings do not have stable electricity, let alone an optimization of energy use. The exposure to all these solutions connected his career to a life-long desire to contribute to healthy development in Nepal.

How could he help implement these solutions back home?

In Sanjil’s current role as a sales representative for a plumbing and mechanical technology company, he spends a lot of time with contractors. He educates them on new applications of radiant heating and cooling systems. Instead of just designing models, he’s putting tools directly into the hands of the workforce.

However, he still recognizes his own limitations to understanding the industry due to his lack of hands-on trade knowledge.

“Especially since there’s so much design-build these days, you really need to have a holistic understanding of traditional construction and the integration of new technologies.”

And so after 4 years of engineering school and another 4 years of working to design and implement building efficiency solutions at the highest level, Sanjil has decided to become a student again. He attends Laney College’s skilled trades program and has begun learning hands-on carpentry, electrical and plumbing.

The next step for him is to design a project for Nepal. It will likely incorporate an incubation program for local business where he’ll offer training, funding and material support to encourage the use of energy efficient building techniques in insulation, plumbing, heating and other areas.

Where Can The Industry Go From Here?

These individuals present two stories that force us to consider a few questions:

→ What if this were a trend taking place across the industry?

→ Would construction companies think differently about how they staff?

→ How they develop their people?

→ How they build?

Connect With CIS To Share Your Story

What do you think of Jo and Sanjil’s story? Is it a familiar one? Do you know more folks that came into the trades by some unorthodox method? We’ve, clearly, all arrived here via some form of serendipity - how about you?

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