Kansas City has a question to answer: When the construction industry in this region returns to full strength—and it will, eventually—where will we find the qualified workers to fill the jobs that will emerge in the construction trades?
It’s not simply a question for the construction and building trades industries. It’s one that has dire implications for the entire metropolitan area, because to get to the right answer, we must navigate a tangled history. It’s a history that involves underperforming urban schools, high dropout rates, crime, poverty and many other contributing factors.
Incredibly, the schools continued to pound the square peg of student lifestyles into a round hole of college-track courses, with disastrous results. Knowing that they’d never get into college, more and more students opted to drop out of school altogether. The result was the poisonous cocktail of social ills we deal with yet today.
That past point is key: In the construction trades, if you can’t find people who are qualified to do the work, you can’t make the hire, no matter how many federal work-force regulations we promulgate to encourage job growth in the city.
Training a worker in a construction setting is absolutely unlike training for jobs in any other sector, because ours is one where worker safety can’t be taken for granted. The slightest lack of awareness and training can have crippling, even lethal, consequences.
There’s no question that the construction industry needs to do more—must do more—to help more students understand that they don’t
need a college degree to have satisfying, productive careers with good wages. After all, some of these skilled trades are paying in excess of $40 an hour. How many recent college graduates would love to be making that kind of wage? And how many of the social ills we’re paying for—with different benefit programs, crime-fighting and court costs, drug-prevention and treatment and many more—could be addressed with a work force making those kinds of wages?
Truly disconcerting is that, even before a broad-based recovery, some segments of the construction industry are already experiencing sharp increases in demand, but can’t meet it. Even with federal mandates to hire in under-served areas, there’s money available that can’t be spent because there are virtually no eligible workers who can be certified as worksite-ready.
So What Can Be Done?
There are some steps we can take now to begin addressing this long-term challenge for out community. For one, every business owner or executive, regardless of business sector, must recognize that the broader community has a stake in the resolution of these issues. We all own this problem. We have to speak with one voice.
Second, we must make that voice heard. Educational policy-makers must hear our message and must understand the need to restore the construction trades to their rightful place in school programming.
If we begin to act now, we can start to train and prepare the next generation of construction trades workerswho will build the Kansas City of the future. And we’d strengthen our community by hiring people right here in town. The last time Kansas City enjoyed nearly full employment, construction companies had to go as far as Canada just to find qualified bricklayers. We can’t let that situation develop again, but already, we see signs of qualified laborers being in short supply in some construction sectors.
It is important for the mutual understanding of people in this city to understand the true reasons for unemployment levels that approach 40 percent in the urban core. The true causes run deep. They developed over decades; they won’t be resolved overnight.
But the issues involved in the urban core’s work force have brought us to an inflection point: Are we going to seize the opportunity to restore high-quality jobs to the heart of the metropolitan area?
And if we’re not, what ground do we cede to competing cities that are willing to do what’s needed?
Alex Harris is national administrator for the National Association of Construction Contractors Cooperation, based in Kansas City.
Steve Dunn is chairman of J.E. Dunn Construction Group.