The U.S. job market is facing the consequences of a quandary 50 years in the making. With the projected labor shortage of skilled workers looming in the near future, Lowe’s Home Improvement, in partnership with more than 60 companies, has launched “Generation T” to narrow the gap and widen the interest in skilled trade careers.
The Generation T movement aims to change the negative perception of fields like construction, masonry and utility services while connecting inquisitive students and potential workers to training programs and apprenticeship opportunities.
With partners ranging from community colleges across the country to the Associated General Contractors of America, Lowe’s Senior Director of Trade Skills and Learning Development Mike Mitchell’s vision of “one voice with many hands” for the movement has come to life.
Correcting the labor shortage has become a pressing matter; as baby boomers age out and retire from these jobs, fewer workers are lining up to replace them. Three million jobs in the industry are projected to become available by 2028, according to a Lowe’s news release.
Even today, hiring managers in the skilled trades are noticing the shortage. Nearly 70 percent of construction firms reported having difficulty finding workers to fill these positions, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.
Mitchell attributes the labor shortage to American high schools’ gradual resistance to encouraging students to further their education at vocational schools, instead focusing on preparing students for a four-year degree. While high schools advertise the percentage of graduates who attend university, shop and auto classes become a thing of the past, and thus, students are less and less likely to seek out blue-collar careers.
“About 40 to 50 years ago, schools started to shift their focus on higher education,” Mitchell said. “College is seen as the only milestone worth having for young adults as our culture has fixated itself on white-collar jobs.”
Generation T plans to change the misconception that skilled labor is less worthwhile than office jobs through storytelling and promotion of vocational training.
By showing testimonies of current electricians, builders and other craftsmen content with their careers on social media, Generation T lets prospective tradespeople see for themselves what the future may hold. Coupled with infographics comparing the cost and benefits of a four-year degree versus four years pursuing a career in skilled labor, Generation T’s social media campaign has already lifted the perception of this path by 49 percent, according to Mitchell.
Increasing accessibility and information about vocational training programs is the second component to Generation T’s strategy. Promoting these programs through open houses and informational sessions at high schools energizes prospective students for trade school as much as a brochure or campus tour at a four-year university would.
Some partner schools, like San Joaquin Valley College, bring the brochures to life by providing hands-on experiences on working job sites for those interested. SJVC President Nick Gomez is especially looking forward to connecting students to their potential passions.
“We have people come in and explore the possible routes,” Gomez said. “High schoolers are pessimistic and also have a lack of clarity about what they want to do or what they can do. We have them developing an appreciation for what [skilled labor] feels like and what it looks like before they even start.”
One solution to the skilled trades gap could be achieved while simultaneously addressing the gender pay gap.
According to a 2016 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women occupy less than 10 percent of jobs in construction; yet the gender pay gap in construction is one of the smallest in today’s job market, with women earning an average of 95.7 cents per every dollar a man would earn.
One of Generation T’s partners, Hope Renovations, seeks to narrow both gaps by increasing the amount of women in the construction industry. Founder Nora Spencer witnessed the opportunity when volunteering in women’s shelters while earning her master’s in social work.
“I would ask them, ‘Have you ever thought about the trades? You could make a living wage and you’re more than capable for that type of work,’ ” Spencer said. “The women typically responded that they always saw that work as a man’s job, and nobody ever taught them how to do that kind of stuff.”
Hope Renovations is a 12-week program designed for disadvantaged women with a curriculum of hard skills from the Home Builders Institute pre-apprenticeship program alongside soft skills coaching, such as problem solving and communication, from the Department of Labor.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect Hope Renovations focuses on is preparing participants in how to be the only woman on a job site, including how to determine what constitutes sexual harassment and the steps to take in reporting it to a supervisor.
There’s also a social worker acting as a case manager on staff, helping women overcome barriers they may face while trying to obtain these jobs, such as finding and affording childcare, transportation, and the necessary equipment and clothing.
Hope Renovations aims to launch its first program this September and so far has received positive feedback, both from women interested in joining the field and hiring managers who seek women specifically to fill these roles.
“I was expecting skepticism from the current trades community and agencies we’ve partnered with, but everyone is on board with this,” Spencer said. “There’s not that many workforce development programs for women, particularly in such high-paying careers. We’re just getting started.”