Construction sector still in dumps, but readying for future

The U.S. construction sector has been hit harder than perhaps any other by the economy, suffer the near-collapse of residential and commercial building since 2007. Builders seem to fear a coming shortage of skilled labor more so than lack of work, period.


Kevin G. Hall reports on the employment situation in the construction sector.

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% 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.

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.

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

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. While math skills are essential for carpentry and other segments of the building trades, commercial construction today is also high tech. Veterans of construction trades miss older vocational school programs, which graduated skilled workers and they complain that too much focus is on preparing kids for college.

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