America is a victim of its own success. We have the highest standard of living in the world, yet our economy is stagnant and workers complain of low-paying jobs. What’s going on here?
Lack of motivation. When you are hungry, you will do whatever it takes to get food. There are billions of people in the world who are hungry and willing to work. Meanwhile, obesity plagues the developed world. Full bellies like to relax and sleep.
That’s why multinational companies scour the globe to find a hungry, willing workforce to man their factories. That’s what propelled China through two decades of unparalleled growth. Necessity is the mother of invention.
Now China is becoming affluent and the demand for skilled workers at low wages is moving factories to Vietnam and Ethiopia. This will continue until the entire world is affluent. Good for the world. Bad for the United States. Nothing can stop this.
But for those young Americans with ambition and a good work ethic, there is good news. There is a huge demand for jobs in the construction industry. You don’t have to be a genius. You just have to be willing to work and learn some skills.
The shortage of workers is so great that a half-dozen Mississippi contractor trade associations joined together to create the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation (MCEF) to help recruit and train a new generation of construction workers. Mike Barkett is president.
Barkett is beating the bushes trying to get the message out. “I feel like I’m a traveling salesman,” Barkett told me when he came by my office to talk.
There are dozens of jobs that are desperate for new blood: formers, carpenters, masons, welders, bricklayers, rod busters, concrete finishers, architects, engineers, estimators. The number of craft professionals has been dropping as older workers retire. It’s a huge problem that is stifling growth.
“The workforce shortage in Mississippi is 50,000 people,” Barkett said. “We cannot build the infrastructure – the things we need to build that’s on the books – because we don’t have the workforce available to build them.”
So what happens? I asked. “They get deferred. You build what you can. Between Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, there’s more work than we can hold. Plans that we want to build like plants, things of that nature, don’t get built.”
But surely these big projects are put out to bid? I asked.
“There are bidders but they don’t have the trained workforce to get the job done. They can win the job but where are they going to get the people? Louisiana has got more work going on right now than anybody with new refineries and new plants. They have taken the general populace where you used to hire rod busters over here in Alabama, steel erectors over here in Tennessee. They aren’t there to get anymore. That’s the problem.
“When the economy turned down they retired and didn’t want to come back or they retooled. Now we’re trying to develop a workforce to handle these things.”
Craft professionals float from state to state depending on where the work is. They typically have a home base and live temporarily at the construction site.
“An example: Upchurch Plumbing of Greenwood has jobs going on not just in Mississippi but in Arizona, New Mexico, all over the place. What do they do? They take the local crew – the management, the supervisors, the craft professionals and they put them up in temporary housing. Could be a hotel, could be a trailer, rental, whatever they’ve got to do. When the job is over, they go back home. It’s a lot of traveling.”
MCEF works with the schools and career and technical centers to recruit and train young people. They start recruiting as early as junior high school.
“We explain that this is not just about a job but a career path where you can earn a good wage, you can raise your family, you can coach your little league, you can do the things you want to do and you have a career. You have something you can build on,” Barkett said.
Out of the 113 career and technical centers in Mississippi, 107 have a construction program embedded in their schools. More than 5,000 high schoolers are introduced to these programs during a year. Last year, 872 students graduated from the program. Twenty percent were hired full-time upon graduation. About half went on to community college. Fifteen percent went into the military and the rest went on to four-year college.
“Right now if you want to be a welder, you can go anywhere in the world and weld,” Barkett said. “Ingalls shipyard will hire anyone who has any knowledge of welding and put them to work today. Masons are another high demand craft. Try getting someone to do brick work. They just aren’t available. You can’t find them. They say, ‘That’s not big enough for me to waste my time.’
“I’m not going to tell you that when our kids leave high school, they’re proficient in their crafts. They know enough to get in trouble but at least they know something, and they are more likely to get hired by the contractors than the kids that know absolutely nothing.”
Fortune magazine did a story a few years ago analyzing the typical millionaire in America. The authors discovered a surprising number of contractors who started out as craft professionals and gradually built their expertise and business. They don’t seem like millionaires. They live modestly, drive pickup trucks and hunt and fish for fun, but they have several million in their bank accounts.
As a society, we are focusing too much on typical professions such as lawyers, doctors and accountants. Many people simply aren’t suited for desk jobs. We need to do a better job of educating and training young people for the huge variety of craft professions that are available.
It is ironic that our government will bribe manufacturers to come to Mississippi with huge tax breaks and subsidies, while our small contractors are desperate to train and hire a new generation of craft professionals.
Speaking of Upchurch Plumbing in Greenwood, Robbie Upchurch was in my senior class at Greenwood High and a friend. When Robbie decided to go into the family plumbing business, we shook our heads. “Poor Robbie, throwing his life away by not going to college. So sad.”
As it turns out, Robbie has been far more successful than me or almost all his friends who went to liberal arts college. Upchurch Plumbing has grown to become one of the biggest plumbing contractors in Mississippi, maybe the Southeast.
I’m not trying to dog education. Education is wonderful and I encourage anyone who loves learning to pursue advanced studies. But it is wrong to think of higher education as the only path to professional success. This is especially true today when students not particularly suited for higher education graduate from college saddled with debt and untrained for a financially viable job.