What’s New? Tradesmen of the Future

4 min read

A recent article in Multihousing Pro, entitled “The Incredible Shrinking Tradesman,” highlighted what many in the affordable housing development world already understand first hand: A generation of construction workers is leaving the workforce, and no one knows just how we will replace them.

The article notes that “the average age of a carpenter is 49; welder, 55; plumber, 56; and stonemason, 69, and, in five years, 20 percent of skilled laborers in the industry will have retired, with few trained workers to take their place.”

This growing shortage affects all construction, but may be particularly acute for developers of affordable housing.  Affordable projects are in greater proportion likely to be in urban and other high- cost areas.  Many subsidy sources require paying higher wage rates, which labor shortages today and in the future may exacerbate. And with federal budget pressures continuing, no one is predicting an expansion of subsidy sources any time soon to fill growing pro forma gaps.

At the same time, the affordable housing industry may be well positioned to get ahead of the curve on finding and training the needed workers of the future. One possible approach emerges from a joint initiative of HUD and the US Department of Labor, announced in June of 2014.

Building on the 22-year history of a successful, national network of local YouthBuild programs, HUD and DOL outlined an approach that emphasizes registered apprenticeship programs and similar efforts as pathways to connect contractors and developers to a potentially large pool of new construction workers.

In a typical YouthBuild program, low-income young people ages 16 to 24 spend typically 9 to 12 months, with half their time in a classroom working towards a GED or high school diploma, while spending the other half of their time working on an actual real construction site learning job skills by building affordable housing for their communities. Since YouthBuild was first signed into law by President George H. W. Bush as a federal program in 1992, more than 130,000 YouthBuild students have produced over 28,000 units of affordable housing.

With roughly 265 local YouthBuild programs in 44 states, DC and the Virgin Islands enrolling roughly 10,000 young people, there is potential for such relationships in many of the markets in which affordable housing is being developed.

The HUD-DOL initiative also offers a carrot to developers:  Recognizing that so-called Section 3 provisions in HUD-funded developments have long required that jobs, training and opportunities included residents of the communities in which the developments are happening, HUD is now overtly saying that hiring YouthBuild participants will “increase the competitiveness” of applications for HUD funding.  While this is especially applicable to the range of projects involving public housing redevelopment, it has far broader applications to many HUD-subsidized developments.

Partnerships between YouthBuild and employers in the construction and development world are nothing new.  Many local programs are sponsored by community development corporations, such as Just-A-Start in Cambridge, MA, and the YouthBuild enrollees work on the sponsor’s construction projects.

With at least 2.3 million low-income young people ages 16-24 out of school and out of work, the need for bringing this population back into the workforce is enormous, with a potentially large cost savings to the public. Moreover, the type of training provided to bring this population into the construction trades is exactly what many in education are realizing is needed in an era when only 30 percent of high school students ever go on to complete college.

As the Multihousing pro article notes, “One of the hurdles to educating future construction workers…is that from the federal level on down there’s been a big push in trying to get high school students ready for college and aspiring to the notion that everyone needs to go to college, when the reality is that those who work well with their hands can avoid the student loans and come right out into a really beneficial career that they can get started on right after high school.”

The affordable housing community, long adept at public-private partnerships, is well poised to lead the way both towards addressing the huge looming construction labor shortage, and creating lasting economic opportunities for the very population it serves.

David M. Abromowitz is a nationally known affordable housing attorney at Goulston & Storrs.