The Apprentice

It’s no secret there are massive skill shortages across America, especially in the skilled trades. Young workers have been persuaded that a college degree, especially a 4-year degree, represents the ticket to prosperity in the U.S. To a large extent, their parents grew up at a time when attorneys, physicians, software engineers, and financial professionals experienced significant earning power as the U.S. service sector expanded and the industrial sector shrank, at least in terms of employment opportunities.

There are many associated implications, including approximately $1.5 trillion in outstanding student debt and a dearth of people entering the skilled trades. The situation is set to become even direr as Baby Boomers continue to move headlong into retirement and the U.S. economy continues to expand. As of February, there were more than 7 million available, unfilled jobs in America, and only about 6.2 million unemployed people ostensibly able to fill them.

Somehow, the U.S. economic expansion has been able to neatly navigate an ever-tightening labor market thus far and old-fashioned American ingenuity appears to be the best available explanation. A recent release from the Bureau of Economic Analysis revealed that the U.S. economy expanded 3.2 percent on an annualized basis during 2019’s initial quarter. The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated that the nation added 196,000 jobs in March, and an even more recent report from ADP indicates that April represented another banner month for private-sector job growth. Perhaps most remarkably, this growth is occurring in the context of inflation that not only remains contained, but that has actually been subsiding in recent months, perhaps due in part to a slowing global economy.

For its part, U.S. construction firms added approximately 250,000 jobs during a recent twelve-month period. Anecdotal and other evidence suggests that subcontractors are finding the labor market especially challenging, creating associated issues for general contractors as well as consumers of construction services.

There are barriers to securing sufficient skilled tradespeople beyond cultural factors emphasizing college degrees and comfortable office work. Women continue to enter the trades in relatively small numbers despite efforts in New York and elsewhere to introduce and train more women for careers in construction. Young male labor force participation rates remain low, in part because of the allure of video games. On top of all of this, shifts in cultural norms have resulted in more people failing drug tests. While some industries may find that drug testing has become anachronistic, construction requires people to work with heavy equipment, adjacent to moving traffic, or in high places. In such contexts, drug testing cannot be avoided.

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About the Author

Anirban Basu

Anirban Basu is Chairman & CEO of Sage Policy Group, Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore, MD. He is one of the Mid-Atlantic region’s most recognizable economists in part because of his consulting work on behalf of such clients as prominent developers, bankers, brokerage houses, energy suppliers, and law firms.

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