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Annie Mecias-Murphy didn’t find talent recruitment nearly as challenging as she does today when she started JA&M Developing Corp. nearly 20 years ago. “Back then, there were always people willing to enter the labor force,” says Mecias-Murphy, co-owner and president of JA&M, which is based in Pembroke Pines, Florida. “They might not have had the skills, but they would work themselves up the ranks. Now, we face both a skilled worker shortage and an aging workforce.”

None of this is new, but thanks to that aging workforce, it is newly urgent. Suddenly, the long-projected shortage of skilled trades professionals—even before the pandemic, in 2019, Associated Builders and Contractors put the number at a half-million—is experiencing a multiplier effect in the form of growing numbers of retiring baby boomers. Not only do the members of this historically large generation, 75 million of whom are expected to retire by 2030, leave a lot of slots to fill, they also take with them an incalculable trove of skill, experience and institutional knowledge.

This is the boomer gap. And filling it will mean not just finding new sources of talent but also developing new models for training, instruction and mentorship.


It’s easy to assume that COVID-19 is the primary catalyst for the workforce shortage. While it is true that 3 million more boomers retired in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, than in the year before, the storm clouds of a construction talent crisis were gathering long before that. Consider Tara Tiger Brown’s perspective in a 2012 Forbes column reflecting on a shift in California’s education course requirements for college preparedness that eliminated shop classes in the majority of the state’s schools. 

“The [California] system focuses on theory and not applied skills,” Tiger Brown, the co-founder of three technology organizations and now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, wrote, “a belief that learning how to swing a hammer or understand the difference between a good joint from a bad joint is part of a bygone era, and as a society these skills are not something to strive for—they are something people resort to when they are out of options.”

The Golden State was part of a trend in its abandonment of shop class. Between 1990 and 2009, the number of CTE (career and technical education) credits earned in high schools dropped by 14%, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. As that decline swept the country, Fred McManus, chief operating officer for Brown & Root, noticed a troubling shift in public perception of craft professionals.

“The public stereotype decades ago of a construction worker, no thanks to commercials, was a worker digging a ditch or running a jackhammer and whistling at passerby’s and telling off-color jokes,” McManus tells Construction Executive. “The view was just horrific, and that’s not the accurate representation of what a craft professional does.”

Brown & Root is part of an industry effort to redefine the value of the skilled trades for an emerging generation of prospective workers. The Baton Rouge–headquartered industrial contractor is focused on introducing students to career opportunities in construction. “We’re going into the high schools and updating the industrial-arts classes,” McManus says. “When I was in high school, it was an easy class. Now we’re teaching electrical, plumbing, welding and carpentry. It’s curriculum-based craft education that introduces the foundational skills to these students.”

“As these students are trying to figure out their next steps after high school, most of them have not considered a career in construction,” McManus adds, “unless they’re like me, and their family was in the industry. They’ve never seen what an excavator can do, what a bulldozer can do, or the 3D CAD technology we use to design scaffolding.”

In South Florida, Mecias-Murphy is doing similar work to deliver shop-class offerings to high schools. Her career arc makes her uniquely positioned to help address the country’s current lack of skills-based education. Before her journey to becoming a leader in the construction industry, Mecias-Murphy—who has a Ph.D. in philosophy—spent 15 years as a teacher and a school counselor. Since joining the ABC Florida East Coast Chapter, where she now serves on the board of directors, she has been working to build stronger relationships with school boards to develop skills-based courses that can be part of the curriculum. “Why can’t an estimating class be taken as a math class?” she asks.

The good news: Mecias-Murphy doesn’t seem to be the only one pondering that type of question. States such as Montana and Nevada have allocated significant money for CTE in recent years—a promising signal for giving skilled work some much-needed time in the spotlight.


Now for some bad news: No matter how much the industry can benefit from a resurgence in the number of schools that offer shop classes, the reality is that it’s not likely to happen overnight. After all, there are only so many hours in a school day—and so many dollars in a limited school budget. 
With that in mind, construction companies will need to identify additional opportunities to connect with their future workforce. Mecias-Murphy, who serves as the vice chair of the board of directors of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, thinks that grassroots initiatives are key to addressing the skilled-labor shortage. When she spoke to CE, JA&M had recently participated in a construction career day that gave approximately 150 14- to 18-year-old Broward County students—all members of different chapters of the Boys and Girls Clubs—an immersive look at the industry. Students circulated among different stations, including roofing, plumbing and concrete, “to see what construction is all about.”

In addition to those types of broad introductions, Mecias-Murphy highlighted ABC Florida East Coast’s Apprenticeship Program, which allows young workers to transfer 28 hours toward a community-college degree—just as if they were students who had begun their undergraduate studies elsewhere. “Kids can start as a laborer and go on to earn a management degree,” she says, “all without amassing any college debt.”

That lack of debt is a big selling point. Research shows that graduation-ready students are open to career paths that don’t involve borrowing a mountain of money, including a 2022 study conducted by ECMC Group that found that 51% of teens are interested in pursuing a four-year degree—a 20% drop from just two years earlier.

McManus thinks that events from Build Your Future—an NCCER program offering high-school and middle-school students field-trip opportunities to get a sense of careers in construction—are one of the best ways to share the potential of pursuing skilled trades. The company aims to participate in at least one each quarter in Louisiana, which he says helps them connect with approximately 2,000 students (the company’s Texas operation also participates in programs in the Lone Star State). “We had one yesterday in Lake Charles, Louisiana,” McManus says. “We show them how to build a scaffold, as well as robotic welding.”

Those students are ready to learn, too. “What I enjoy about the Gen Z workforce is that they enjoy listening to us old-timers,” McManus says. “They appreciate the mentorship and listening to understand your history and experiences.”


No matter how open a student is to learning about the potential of a career in construction, though, there’s an arguably more important set of ears that the industry needs to convince: their parents. In an economy where many people still believe that a four-year degree is a centerpiece of success, that can be a tall order. “Parents want their children to go to receive a great education and to succeed,” McManus says, reflecting on sending his daughters—both of whom now work in the construction industry—to college.

While McManus hasn’t completed his own degree, he considers himself a lifelong learner, and regardless of the education credentials listed next to his name, he notes that he’s gone from “the shovel to the C-suite.” “It is our responsibility to inform parents that their children have endless opportunities in this industry and can make an impressive salary and that they can execute their tasks safely,” he says. “Right now, if a person engages in further education with us, they can be making $100,000 in five years. These are all important elements for parents to know—that this is an industry where their children can have a good income, work safely, provide for their family and climb the career ladder.”

Sabra Phillips, director of organizational and talent development at Houston-based MAREK, echoes the importance of that ladder, highlighting the need to have a “repeatable, effective way to grow someone from entry-level to journey-level”—and a similar route to move that journey-level employee into a supervisory-level position. “We have attracted people we wouldn’t have otherwise attracted because we can describe a career path that leads to supervision and leadership,” Phillips says.

Mecias-Murphy points out that some parents may need more convincing than others. “In many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, a degree in teaching, law or medicine represented the way to make money,” says Mecias-Murphy, whose father immigrated to the United States from Cuba. “For parents who came from that background and immigrated to the U.S., the construction industry needs to articulate that it’s a different story here. There are so many ways to earn a good living that don’t only involve those three career paths.”


Construction isn’t the only profession confronting a talent gap. Nursing, aviation and hospitality are just a few of the industries that are staring down a future without enough workers. Some of them are actually taking cues from the craft-professional development model, with companies such as Accenture and Aon borrowing a page from the registered-apprenticeship playbook. “People are borrowing from us as an industry and finding ways to attract talent,” Phillips says. “We can learn from them, and they can learn from us. But it also means the competition is fierce.”

With that in mind, Phillips is already planning to borrow inspiration from outside the industry as she works to offer recruiting, training and safety program materials in more languages than the industry standard English and Spanish. She is in a peer group focused on adult education, and she highlights that Tyson Foods has done an impressive job of catering to a workforce that speaks approximately 60 different languages in its plants. “They brought in the former state director of adult education in Texas, Anson Green, to expand their Upward Academy and Upward Pathways programs,” Phillips says.
Tyson’s investment includes covering 100% of the costs of tuition, books and fees for employees at more than 35 universities and education centers, too. And, in addition to spending more than $500 million on wage increases and bonuses for its hourly employees in 2021, the company committed more than $1 million to help immigrant employees access legal services for sorting through the challenges of securing U.S. citizenship. Tyson’s programs are a reminder that companies can do more to enhance their employees’ lives outside their shifts.


Construction companies are trained to follow blueprints, but the solution to the talent shortage doesn’t have a clearly defined action plan. Instead, it’s a simple order that everyone in the industry is accustomed to following: Roll up your sleeves, and dig in. “Construction has always been a provider of solutions,” Mecias-Murphy says. “It’s up to us to make it happen. No one else is going to be able to do it better than we can.”

For Phillips, filling the boomer gap isn’t so much about saying goodbye to a retiring generation of talent and welcoming a new one. It’s about recognizing that the industry has the tools to transition between the two—and pass down the preceding generation’s knowledge to new talents as they prepare to fuel innovation and growth. “We have been fortunate to work with many wonderful craft professionals and field leaders for decades,” Phillips says. “As they retire, we honor their legacy, the structures and the people they built up during their great service, and we miss them.

“At the same time we celebrate with the team graduating to retirement, we intentionally build up the incoming team and seek out their unique opportunities and contributions,” Phillips says. “Taking an integrated talent development approach means we incorporate skills, experiences and relationship building as a part of career growth and evolve as we learn from each other. It’s not easy, but it is worthwhile. The greater risk is stagnation and lack of curiosity.” 


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