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April 12, 2019

Facing a labor shortage, construction tries to rebrand



As reported on, on a recent morning in downtown Denver, a group of high school kids sat in a classroom taking a quiz. The students were on a field trip to the Construction Industry Training Council of Colorado, to learn about apprenticeships. Executive Director Cori Gerlitz gave the sales pitch.

“What’s the average salary for first-year apprentices in the construction industry?” she asked the group. As dramatic game show music played, the kids punched their guesses into an app on their phones. The answer popped up on a screen: $15 per hour. And that was an old number, Gerlitz told them. “I’ve got people who are coming into the school right now, no experience, they’re making anywhere from $15 to $17 an hour, depending upon their trades,” Gerlitz said.

Wages are rising because employers are desperate for workers like masons, pipefitters and electricians.

“It is absolutely at crisis level,” Gerlitz said. In Colorado, she said, the industry will need at least 30,000 new workers within the next several years. In a recent survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and USG Corp., which makes building materials, 70 percent of construction firms nationally said they were struggling to make deadlines because they can’t find enough workers.

There are many reasons for the shortage, said Jennifer Scanlon, CEO of USG Corp. The industry is still recovering from the housing downturn and recession, she said, when 2 million construction jobs disappeared. Today, with so many choices in a strong job market, many of those workers haven’t come back. Shop classes have vanished from many high schools and more kids are encouraged to go to college instead of pursuing trades. And, Scanlon said, the industry is also facing an image problem.

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