Mike Rowe, former host of the popular television show “Dirty Jobs,” said it best: “We are lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist.” The Independent Women’s Forum, the educational organization for which I work, honored him in 2019 for his dedication to promoting the dignity of hard work and changing the public’s perception about blue-collar work. His efforts are important because we are in an uphill battle.
For decades, policymakers, the educational system, and popular culture placed a premium on the four-year-college degree and white-collar work as the path to the middle class. They stigmatized the trades, relegating them to second-best status. They have used hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize higher education, but neglected those pursuing non-college careers.
As a result, we have a Millennial generation stuck with over a trillion dollars of student loan debt with degrees they feel were not worth their time, and missing the skills employers demand. Many other young people who forwent college or dropped out also lack the skills and experience to land good-pay.
Meanwhile, we have industries laden with job opportunities, but not enough qualified workers to fill them. The construction industry offers some of the fastest-growing careers. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, electrician jobs are projected to grow 8% over the next decade. That’s faster than the average for all occupations. Construction, along with health care and personal care, will account for one-third of all new jobs through 2022. Yet, 81% of construction companies nationwide surveyed by the Associated General Contractors of America said they have trouble finding qualified workers. Compound this worker shortage with an aging Baby Boomer population that (pre-COVID-19) was retiring at a rate of about 10,000 people per day, and we have a perfect storm.
Identifying Your Target Workforce
This storm presents a huge opportunity though. By targeting the right demographic with traditional recruitment avenues and experimenting with new ideas, employers can connect with the younger and more diverse generations in the workforce.
Generation Z is the youngest generation in the workforce. Ranging in age from 25 down to about middle school, they are racially diverse like their older siblings, the Millennials. However, they intend to avoid the mistakes that Millennials made of incurring lifelong debt to fund their higher education. Gen Z is more open to pursuing other paths to success that don’t run through campus. They aspire to be entrepreneurs and value flexibility, recognition, social responsibility, and meaning. All of this makes Gen Z a great target for recruitment.
Occupations in the trades can meet many of these desires, but there’s a shocking lack of knowledge about these industries that runs counter to the current employment climate. In a survey of 18-24 year olds, 68% said their guidance counselors never even discussed trade schools. There’s a massive information gap about this industry and we should not depend on educators to fill it.
Informing young people about the opportunities in electrical contracting, the benefits, and how to break into this field will require starting early and investing time and effort to increase their exposure and build relationships. Any recruitment playbook should include both short-term and long-term plays.
Attracting young women to the construction industry may have seemed out of reach in the past, but even that is changing. Women comprise 50% of the workforce today, but just 2.4% of electricians. Positively, for at least the last five years, the number of women in blue-collar trades has trended up.
Many young women thrive in collaborative environments and enjoy problem-solving. Like their male peers, they want to understand the pay and opportunities in this field. They are also looking for flexible working conditions and paid leave options, given that women often bear the brunt of caretaking duties at home. In addition, they want to know that this is an industry they can compete in.
There are key recruitment tactics that can help build interest among young women. Not surprisingly, they also help in recruiting young minorities who share many of the same questions about pay, opportunities, and how to break into the field.
3 Ways to Build Your Talent Pipeline
First, develop applied-learning opportunities. These are hands-on learning experiences for young people that can be one-time events such as shadowing an employee or short-term and long-term engagements such as internships and mentorships. The goal is to expose young people to how your work impacts everyday life. As one young woman described it, “You learn why you’re learning!”
Second, build relationships with nontraditional partners who can connect you to young people or build out those applied-learning opportunities. Consider supporting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) clubs in schools; partnering with civic groups, youth groups, and churches; and reaching out to homeschool networks.
During this pandemic, many families transitioned to homeschooling entirely. Homeschooling offers more flexibility for nonacademic learning, and families are hungry for informative, hands-on experiences.
Third, consider creating buzz-worthy facetime opportunities that build excitement about this occupation and your company. Consider sponsoring science fairs, shark-tank or prize competitions, and career days. For high school students, info sessions and even job offers can be an excitement-generating moment. For example, some companies are hosting signing days for their young employees with the glitz and buzz of a professional sports signing day. The local press may cover the event and the images are ripe to go viral on social media.
Shadowing and mentorships are key recruitment tactics for female and minority workers. They want to see others like them in this field. Women and people of color on your staff or in your local professional community can be your best representatives.
Introducing children to careers in STEM builds their curiosity and interest, but also educates their parents who play a major role in post-high school choices.
These tactics and strategies are just one part of a larger effort that this industry can undertake to push back against the cultural shift that embraced the every-kid-to-college model to the detriment of the trades. It will require a collective effort not just from employers, but also from parents, teachers, the media, and policymakers.
A Role for Public Policy
Policymakers must inspire greater respect for vocational education. That does not mean spending more public funds, but treating vocational and higher education equally. If taxpayer dollars are going to educational funding they should at least be available for all types of educational training such as short-term job-training courses and workforce development, not just college tuition. Public awareness campaigns can also improve the way people regard vocations.
Lawmakers have a responsibility to avoid harmful policies that create hurdles to work. Burdensome and unnecessary occupational licensure can make jobs off-limits, especially to those with a criminal background. Reclassifying independent contractors as employees would also kill flexible, independent work that appeals to women.
Investing in a talent pipeline takes intention. Cultural shifts take time. We are at a point now when younger generations are open to embracing different paths to success. We know that this industry provides one. Let’s not waste this moment.