By Phil Crone
Executive Officer, Dallas Builders Association
These days, any article about President Trump, especially one that is an opinion piece, is bound to be read with a certain level of trepidation. That being said, how he addresses the labor shortage will be the barometer by which the construction industry evaluates his presidency.
Certainly, actions to peel back costly regulations are welcome and applauded, but — in the Dallas area at least — the lack of boots on the ground is currently a much larger concern than any amount of red tape.
How is President Trump going to help the industry replace a million workers that never returned following the last downturn and nearly another million, currently in the industry, who plan to retire in the next decade? In his acceptance speech, President Trump sounded like my late grandfather (an old school FDR Democrat) promising new investments in infrastructure including highways, bridges and tunnels. These sorts of projects had a positive impact on housing demand in that era, but could exacerbate the lack of skilled labor by creating new demand where limited supply exists today.
A dwindling supply of homegrown construction workers over the last 20 years left the industry increasingly reliant on immigrant labor. That in and of itself is not a negative thing. Our nation was built on the backs of immigrant labor and a work ethic rooted in the desire to provide one’s family with opportunities only found in America. The construction industry continues to fulfill that American dream for many families. However, economic improvement, especially in Mexico and Central America, is providing them opportunities at home and leaving America shorthanded.
In other words, President Trump’s immigration stance has nothing to do with the current labor situation. Of course, it could make it worse if immigrants are prevented from finding work here or feel as if they are not welcome. Regardless, we have to address the situation from within. Investing in vocational programs is an opportunity more golden than anything found in Trump Tower.
If you want to “make America great again,” make America great at making things again. All of the focus on returning blue collar jobs from overseas is ironic and unfortunate when we cannot fill the ones that we already have available here at home. Our workforce is currently calibrated to a service based economy that is five times larger than the manufacturing sector. The idea that a college degree defines your success has been ingrained into an entire generation along with the corresponding stigma for any deviations from this path.
Unfortunately, we have yet to hear anything of substance from the new President on this subject. His campaign platform addresses it as follows, “ensure that the opportunity to attend a two- or four-year college, or to pursue a trade or a skill set through vocational and technical education, will be easier to access, pay for, and finish.” Access to vocational programs is part of the issue. Despite recent legislation making it easier for them to do so, Texas schools have been reluctant or unwilling to modify their curriculum to include or accommodate programs focused on the construction trades.
Generating interest in these programs is just as important as access and this is where the Trump administration must take the lead. President Trump loves bold promises. Why not promise to train American workers to fill nearly a million jobs that are needed in the construction industry both now and over the next decade? This initiative fills a current need for jobs that cannot be outsourced overseas and provides opportunities for the next generation of American workers, many of whom are unable to attend college. Additionally, many of these skills translate to other aspects of the manufacturing industry, so if indeed those jobs return or are needed for infrastructure projects, our workforce will be ready.