Construction sector still in dumps, but readying for future

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 27, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The construction sector has been hit harder than perhaps any other in the U.S. economy, suffering the near-collapse of residential and commercial building since 2007. So it might seem strange that builders fear a coming shortage of skilled labor, but they do.

They're taking steps to solve that problem by working proactively with school systems to teach kids how to use math on the work site, in an effort to spark interest and boost skills.

Employment in construction peaked in August 2006, just before home prices burst and nearly sank the U.S. financial system. Since then, 2.1 million jobs have disappeared, a 27 percent decline from the 7.7 million construction jobs at that peak. One in four construction workers employed at the peak is now either jobless or making a living some other way.

Even as the national economy recovers, the construction sector continues to suffer. Over the 12 months from November 2009 to 2010, California lost 36,900 construction jobs, Nevada shed 16,600, Florida 12,900 and North Carolina 9,400.

There should be plenty of demand for construction workers once the sector revives with the economy, but Ken Simonson, the chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, isn't optimistic that rising demand can be filled with skilled labor.

"What's important about this recession is that because it has gone on so long, many of the experienced people have retired, or if they're lucky, have gone on to other jobs," Simonson said. "When the demand for workers comes back, we're not going to have the skilled, experienced workers to train the new ones."

To help remedy that shortcoming, regional chapters of Associated General Contractors of America directly support about a dozen construction charter schools or construction career academies across the nation. In addition, many are involved in high schools and outreach programs designed to teach basic math skills to young men and women.

"What we're seeing is we're getting better results from the charter schools: a 96 percent graduation rate versus 70 percent. A 30 percent dropout rate is, in my mind, our educational system failing a lot of our students," said Ted Aadland, the president of Associated General Contractors of America.

Still, the construction trade faces a skills dilemma. Even if students get passing grades in math — and that's a fairly big if — they're not being taught how math applies to the work site.

And construction is all about math. Everything from carpentry and brickwork to grading and sloping involves math.

Construction veterans are shocked at how few graduating students have functional math abilities. That's why associations and contractors are trying to teach applied math skills.

"If it's just a page in a book, and here's the formula and here's how you put it together, there is no understanding of what it does for you," Aadland said. "Why would you, how would you figure the volume and area? That's what really clicks with people."

That's exactly the approach Joe Youcha takes. He's the executive director of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation in the Virginia suburb of Washington. His nonprofit group works in schools and with courts and community groups to teach applied math across all grade levels.

In addition to showing teachers how to turn math problems into challenges that kids might face in the real world, Youcha runs old-fashioned boatbuilding apprenticeship programs.

During a recent visit to the seaport's cold warehouse on the Potomac River, a handful of young men were putting their new math skills to work, cutting angled planks of wood to build a workboat.

One instructor, Steve Hernandez, went through the program himself years ago.

"I went into the Marine Corps after this. I was a helicopter crew chief, CH-53s, so it transferred in terms of mechanical skills," he said during a break from showing the handful of apprentices how to add fractions on a ruler. "A lot of the nomenclature was similar. Looking at the lines on a helicopter are very similar to the lofting lines ... and you're looking at specs, drawings, blueprints. All of that was transferrable in one way, shape or form."

The apprentices, all ages 17 to 22, work together as a crew, learning teamwork. Some grasp the subject matter more quickly than others do. One struggles with multiplication.

Youcha's program starts with basic math. In fact, he wrote an instructional book for a Virginia carpenter's union that requires a high school diploma or GED. When he was first approached, Youcha assumed that it would involve everything from advanced ruler reading to trigonometry.

"They were like, 'No. You have to start with place-value charts, whole numbers and addition and subtraction,' " said Youcha, who has an Ivy League degree in history but found his calling teaching applied math. "They come out of school not being able to name the number in front of them. They can't tell you that 1,075 is one thousand and seventy-five. And they come with a degree."

While math skills are essential for carpentry and other segments of the building trades, commercial construction today is also high tech.

"When I started in the industry, if you were a crane operator you had it made, pulling levers and so on. Today, it's all computerized," said Aadland, the president of the contractors' group. "Everything on the crane is computerized. Your lift charts. All our grading now with heavy equipment is all computerized, and everything is done by satellite in bringing down grades. The industry is really reacting and training the craftspeople as we go."

Veterans of construction trades miss the old days, when vocational schools graduated skilled workers, and they complain that too much focus is on preparing kids for college.

"Construction will continue to offer opportunities for people who don't have a college degree or any college education. ...We're going to be looking for that mix of skills from people coming right out of high school or right out of military service," said economist Simonson of Associated General Contractors of America. "It's going to be hard to attract workers when they see how long the unemployment periods have lasted recently."

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