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A forklift, some saw stations, and an unfinished wood frame house fill the classroom at the Home Builders Institute building on Fort Stewart military base in Georgia. Inside, 15 men and women in hard hats and steel toe boots maneuvered the bare-bones structure of a wall switch.
“We’re wiring up a receptacle that is constant hot and also controlled by a single-pole switch,” said Tony Dyke, with a drill in hand.
“It was a little confusing in the beginning when we first started learning. But after, you know, going through a couple classes and everything, it comes along almost naturally,” Dyke said.
By the end of this 12-week apprenticeship, Dyke and his classmates will be able to use the Pythagorean theorem to find the height of a ceiling and measure tile. They will be able to tell the difference between a lag screw and an electrogalvanized nail — skills that will give them a chance to earn a least $17.61 an hour in the residential construction sector.
Dyke, though, is hoping to earn more, after three and a half years driving a tank.
“It doesn’t really transition well to the civilian world. You know, there’s no tanks in the civilian world,” he laughed.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 196,000 vacant construction jobs across the country. In a survey last year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce found that more than two-thirds of small contractors in residential construction are having difficulty finding skilled workers.
The Home Builders Institute (HBI), the educational arm of the National Association of Home Builders, has been working to fill that labor gap with an apprenticeship that trains soldiers returning to civilian life, like Dyke, for a job in residential construction.
“There’s over 700 state and local home builders associations and in virtually every area where we have a program, all of them are really crying out for workers to meet the demand,” said John Courson, CEO of HBI.
In March, the Home Depot Foundation announced it will invest $50 million in HBI’s apprenticeship, expanding the programs to military bases and high schools. This is the largest corporate partnership HBI has had for this kind of training.
“We’ve got tradespeople who are retiring out of the system, but we don’t have that younger generation that’s coming in behind them,” said Heather Prill, senior manager for strategic partnerships for the Home Depot Foundation.
Part of the skills gap in the construction sector began when schools stopped offering shop class, Prill said.
“It’s when STEM and IT came around that, all of a sudden, shop class was going away and people were saying ‘four-year degree, four-year degree.’”
Through the expansion of apprenticeships, the Home Depot Foundation and the Home Builders Institute hope to train 20,000 workers in the next ten years.
But there’s one challenge according to Peter Philips, a labor economist at the University of Utah: that only represents about 1 percent of the residential construction labor force.
“And this is exacerbated by the problem that in residential construction, historically there has been very little formal training,” he said.
Philips said the residential construction industry will need 600,000 new skilled workers to bounce back to where it was before the Great Recession.
One additional hurdle will be keeping skilled workers in the sector when there is the prospect of higher wages and more benefits in the commercial construction industry.
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