Many projects, few workers: What is the future of Indiana's construction industry?

It’s no secret that the building trades have what some might call a “people problem.” Nationwide, there aren’t enough qualified workers coming into the field to replace the outgoing talent in jobs like carpentry, craft labor, pipefitting, and masonry, leaving companies and project managers feeling the pinch.

It’s a numbers game that has many stakeholders worried about the future of the construction industry in Indiana and beyond. Building Indiana says the number of young construction workers declined by nearly 30 percent nationwide between 2005 and 2016, according to U.S. Census data. Yet the demand for these jobs in public and private projects is outpacing the growth of qualified workers.

There are 6.7 million jobs available in the labor industry at this time, with demand for 114,418 craft labor positions in Indiana alone. It is estimated that within the next five years, there will be 68 percent more job openings in infrastructure-related fields

Rick Wajda Rick Wajda, Chief Executive Officer at the Indiana Builders Association (IBA), is among those who has a stake in this matter. 

“I think we’re not alone in this battle, as many sectors (are facing this) even after the recession," he says. "We saw a significant downturn in new homes being built. But now, as new homes are being built (again), we’ve seen a lack of available labor.”

Wajda attributes the issue to three factors: An aging workforce, skepticism from displaced workers in the 2008 recession, and the higher accessibility of four-year degrees. 

“Society has pushed a lot of people into a four-year institution track, but it doesn’t need to be the only path,” he says. “You can make a good living with little or no formal education.”

Enter Build Your Future Indiana, a collaboration of employers, state agencies, and industry associations. The goal is to encourage Indiana residents to learn about construction craft careers and training opportunities now emerging in our state, so they can qualify for and get jobs in these high-demand occupations.

The Indiana Builders Association does outreach in the form of trade show booths.
Wajda says the partnership has already seen success in terms of public education. The website outlines possible career paths and salary expectations and shows people there are career pathways from “planning to finish” stages of projects—jobs ranging from accountants to roofers and everything in between. 

In addition to interest in the website, Wajda says they’ve also seen an ROI from their outreach at the high school level. Professionals in the building industry are eager to devote time and attention to students in the classroom setting to spark conversation and interest. 

“Workers are excited to talk about their careers, and students enjoy hearing about their experiences,” he says.

Wajda says the next frontier is middle school, as many schools start career exploration at this critical time. He cites Garrett-Keyser-Butler Community School District as one local model that seems to be working. Their Career Development Program begins in 5th grade with a hands-on “Elementary Career” class where students are exposed to the basic processes involved in the building trades. These hands-on, career-related experiences then continue through their middle school years.

At the high school level, students translate information into knowledge with courses that integrate core academic classes with manufacturing, construction, and the like. Beyond the classroom, students receive real-life training and experience in a variety of skilled trades. The hope is that by a student’s senior year, they will be fully prepared for an internship or apprenticeship in the trade of their choice.

After that, the world—or at least the skilled-labor job market—is their oyster, Wajda says.

"The sky's the limit in what you can achieve," he says.
 

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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