Help Wanted Building Utah’s Future

BY MEGAN MCNULTY

Utah’s economy continues to impress with job growth that leads the nation. Like many industries, Utah’s home builders face a major bottleneck – a significant lack of skilled labor. However, this particular labor challenge has a systemic impact given the state’s housing shortage.

As the recent Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s report on housing affordability noted, “Even though construction volume has recovered well since the last recession, the construction industry has lagged in terms of employment numbers.”

Indeed, many skilled workers – such as carpenters, framers and roofers – were forced to seek employment elsewhere during the Great Recession. Several trades did retain their construction workers but many of them are no longer available to build houses. The latest statistics bear this out: the number of open construction sector jobs nationally in August 2018 was 298,000 – reaching a Post-Recession high, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Home builders are now competing harder than ever for talent, especially with the $3.4 billion expansion of the Salt Lake City International Airport and other large-scale commercial and road construction projects.

Despite the rising number of open jobs, eighty-one percent of construction firms in Utah said they have difficulty filling some or all positions and 50 percent said filling positions for project managers and supervisors is more difficult than a year ago.

-According to a 2018 report by the Associated General Contractors of America

  • This labor shortage has a real impact on housing affordability. Builders have experienced delays that slow supply in completing homes, and in some cases have had to cancel projects due to a shortage of workers. These delays and production bottlenecks are also increasing the cost of building a home in Utah, which in turn is raising costs for home buyers.

    With Utah being one of the fastest growing states in the nation, but a lack of talented workers to fill construction positions, one question remains: How can we continue to effectively build Utah?

    2018: The Year of Technical Education
    To address this challenge and highlight the high-wage potential of technical jobs, Governor Gary R. Herbert deemed 2018 the Year of Technical Education. Kicking off the effort, the Governor shared that at a technical college, Governor Gary R. Herbert deemed 2018 the Year of Technical Education. Kicking off the effort, the Governor shared that at a technical college, “You spend less time in school, it’s less expensive, you owe less debt, and you can get in the marketplace and find rewarding careers. Nearly 90 percent of the graduates of our technical colleges are placed immediately into jobs. So, if you want a job, come to a technical college.”

    Tami Pyfer, the governor’s education advisor, has been working to draw attention to the benefits of career and technical education and the need to expand access to technical programs. This includes career fairs and visits to Utah’s eight technical schools to help raise awareness of the importance of trade school programs.

    “We need to break the perception that these are ‘dirty or dangerous’ jobs,” Pyfer said.

    The goal of this initiative is to change the public

  • perception and elevate awareness of the benefits of trade and other skilled jobs throughout the entire state of Utah. With this initiative in place, Pyfer’s seeks to debunk the idea that trade school is the last resort if one cannot attend a traditional four-year university.

    What most people don’t know is that the nontraditional route of trade school has actually become a cheaper way to pay for a post-secondary education, according to Pyfer. The choice to enroll in technical college has the potential to eliminate excessive student debt completely.

    For example, the average cost of in-state tuition at the University of Utah totals out to be about $8,382 per year for Utah residents. In comparison, the average cost of tuition at Ogden-Weber Technical College for a full-time student (30 hours per week) is about $280 per month or $1,750 per year (about $2 per hour). Once a technical college graduate can offer a skill to an employer, that employer is more likely to help them pay for an additional two or four-year degree.

    Residential construction workers consistently express high job satisfaction and average salaries in Utah remain competitive with other industries. Those who graduate with a higher education associate degree are projected to make $55,342 after five years of experience. According to data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services, the average annual wage in construction for 2017 was $49,131 while the average for all other industries was $45,727 – a $3,404 per year difference.

    Those who take the pathway toward becoming a construction manager are predicted to make a median of $76,174 per year – over $20,000 more per year than the national median income of $56,516.

Put it this way: those who do choose to graduate with industry-recognized certificates or technical training from one of the state’s technical colleges or higher ed institutions will have top placement rates in high-demand, high-wage jobs in the health professions, computer information and support, business, protective services and engineering technologies.

  • On-ramps and Off-ramps
    Pyfer compares technical education to a roadmap with various on- and off-ramps for students as they develop marketable skills.

    An education in the trades can be compared to an “on-ramp” because it allows students to more quickly enter a career that will support them and their families. Once they are in a career, students may choose to take an “off-ramp” to obtain further technical education or perhaps pursue a 2 or 4 year degree at one of the state’s higher education institutions. No longer are these postsecondary educational options seen as an either/or choice, but as a full menu of options for students and adults as they travel along a successful career path.

    This initiative is not just aimed at teenagers or young adults starting out in their career. Underemployed adults, refugees and veterans looking for employment opportunities can benefit the most from these low-risk, high-reward training programs aimed at those who are willing to commit to learning by doing.

    Unlike traditional higher education programs where most of the instruction is based on textbooks and lecture, students in technical education learn a trade or job skills through hands- on experiences throughout the entire process. When students can make the connection between the ‘theory’ and the ‘practice’ of the concepts they are learning, they are more likely to be engaged with the project they are working on. For example, high school students who earned three or more CTE credits in high school have a 10 point percent higher graduation rate – 96 percent – than the state’s average graduation rate of 86 percent. That points to the benefit of engaged learning through technical education.

    Making an Impact
    Another program to help combat the talent gap is funded through the Department of Workforce Services. In conjunction with Weber State University and other key stakeholders, DWS is planning to launch the Building Design and Construction Pathway project in 2019. This statewide project will help highlight the hands-on technical education programs that are available to kids as early as as seventh grade.


  • Each seventh grader enrolled in public school in Utah is required to take a course called College and Career Awareness. The plan for this new project is to prepare a module for teachers who teach this course that introduces students to career paths in trades. When the students mature to 10th grade, they will be able to take concurrent enrollment classes to earn credit at a technical college.

    “If we can get kids into the industry or other professions we feel like that’s where we’ll see success,” said Jeremy Farner, the program coordinator of the Building Design and Construction Pathway project.

    Helping students see that potential comes from another stakeholder effort, Keys to Success and a new app, to connect students with certificates, scholarships and internships related to careers. Specifically, Keys to Success is planning to launch a new website dubbed “Build to Success.”

    “We’re showing every high-school student in the state the potential of a career in construction and homebuilding,” said Rick Folkerson, president of the Success in Education nonprofit.

    Beyond students, there is untapped potential in Utah’s workforce. “Women need to know that they’ve got a place where they can go and make a good living for their family,” said Diane Lewis, the president of Utah Women in Trades.

    Utah Women in Trades supports the education of women by funding apprenticeship programs in trades including bricklaying, electrical work, construction and painting. These programs take about four years to complete and allow participants to earn a livable wage while attending school or other outside activities.

    Utah Women in Trades also works to make sure women are able to work in a harassment-free and safe work environment with equal pay to males in the same field. Judy Barnett, the executive director of Utah Women in Trades, said she is helping the organization put on a spring conference in April of 2019 to promote the apprenticeship program.

Megan McNulty is Marketing Project Coordinator at Ivory Homes.

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