Construction Industry Faces Challenge of Changing Work Ethic

March 19, 2020 Updated: March 19, 2020
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DYERSVILLE, Iowa—Lucas Treangen grew up on a dairy farm in Waukon, Iowa.

From the time he was 13, he would get up at 5:30 in the morning to milk 65 cows, and then do it again after school.

He bought his first vehicle, a used Chevy pickup, with money he saved from milking cows on his neighbors’ farms as well.

“I think it’s wonderful my parents raised me with a strong work ethic,” he said.

Treangen, 30, now works at a well-drilling company in a rural part of eastern Iowa. He is one of the “farm boys” on the team, as Gary Shawver would say. Shawver is the company’s president, and he lauds “farm boys” as having the best work ethic.

But they’re getting harder to find.

“If there are farm boys, they either stay on the farm or go to a city and get a 40-hour-a-week job,” Shawver said. His company, the name of which he preferred not to share, has room to expand. But “finding people that want to go out and do hard, dirty work is extremely difficult,” he said.

His experience reflects that of the U.S. construction industry in general. The work pays fairly well, and the young people who stick with it often find it rewarding in many ways, not the least of which is financially. The industry is ready to expand, as is Shawver’s company—if only it can find young people to replace its aging workforce.

Workers Needed

About 75 percent of construction companies plan to hire in 2020 to meet strong demand—and most of them are having trouble filling positions—according to a recent survey by The Construction Association.

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A construction worker in Miami on March 10, 2017. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

More than 40 percent of construction workers will retire in 2026, with the median age of workers having steadily climbed over the past few decades to 43 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and an analysis by the National Center for Construction Education and Research.

And interest in construction work among young people is at an all-time low.

High-Paying Jobs

Louise Taylor, whose family owns Taylor Construction in eastern Iowa, told The Epoch Times her grandson made $28 per hour working for the company as a college student about a decade ago. He made $25,000 in a summer.

He asked many friends to join him, but there were few takers.

Shawver said his company trains workers from the ground up. It’s not a job you need to spend thousands of dollars on tuition to get into, and you don’t need to spend years in college. There’s also room for advancement in the company.

Treangan is on his way to becoming a senior driller, which could earn him a salary of up to $75,000 plus benefits, insurance, and vacation.

Half of U.S. construction workers earn more than $47,000 annually, compared to the national median salary of $38,000, according to a 2018 analysis by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The top-tier salaries in construction are also higher than those in many other industries.

But almost half of the young people surveyed by NAHB in a 2017 poll responded that they remain uninterested in construction work—even if it were to pay upwards of $100,000 annually.

The top reasons were that it’s too physically demanding, and it’s too difficult.

“Working hard is good for you. You have a sense of pride,” T.C. Murphy told The Epoch Times.

Murphy paid off his university degree by working summers in construction. His father was in construction, too, and Murphy grew up helping with his father’s side projects, such as fixing fences, repairing equipment, or remodeling garages.

“When it’s all said and done, actually it feels a lot better than just kind of sitting around,” he said. “I see more and more kids kind of sedentary, instead of being hands-on.”

He said his work ethic has affected his professional life, and has also made him a better father and husband.

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T.C. Murphy and his family. (Courtesy of T.C. Murphy)
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T.C. Murphy at work in Casper, Wyo. (Courtesy of T.C. Murphy)

He graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2009, debt-free thanks to his work for a paving company while he was a student. He’s now a father of three and the general manager and co-owner of a company in Casper, Wyoming, that manages traffic safety around construction sites.

His people are the first to arrive at the construction sites and the last to leave. Like Shawver, he likes to hire farm boys.

“It’s wonderful if you can get them, because they already have that work ethic, you know? And they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty,” Murphy said.

Why Young People Aren’t Starting in Construction

A fear of getting one’s hands dirty isn’t the only reason some young people aren’t entering the construction industry.

Sometimes, it’s their parents who object, Taylor said.

“My little Jodie can’t do that; it’s too dangerous,” she joked.

Susanna Jakubik, marketing manager for I Build America, told The Epoch Times that sometimes parents will think, “I want you to have a better life. I don’t want you to be like your grandpa who was working construction. I want you to go to medical school.

“Well, you know what? Little Johnny may not be set up for medical school. He might be the perfect welder or the best welder they could ever have. And he can make $100,000 by the time he is 30,” Jakubik said.

Many young people simply cannot pass the drug test in the application process, Taylor said.

Shawver said he’s also noticed some roadblocks.

He said only about 3 or 4 out of every 10 applicants has a clean driving record, which is a prerequisite for the must-have commercial driver’s license. He said in the ’80s or ’90s, about 8 out of 10 applicants would have a clean record.

He believes the reasons are twofold. While the laws are getting tougher, he thinks today’s young people are just partying more.

He’s seen some young employees lose their commercial driver’s licenses after a night’s fun with alcohol; they subsequently lost their jobs.

“It’s going to get worse until the moral fiber of our country decides to change,” Shawver said. “No legislation, no Trump, or anybody else can solve that except the American people. And they’ll have to turn back to God to do that.”

Millennials Versus Baby Boomers

Millennials are more focused on lifestyle than previous generations, according to a study by Terri M. Manning, director of the Center for Applied Research at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina.

They enjoy time with friends and are as invested in their leisure activities as they are in their career activities, which is a dramatic change from the work-focused baby boomers.

“The baby boomer generation, they would bank their vacation time year after year after year,” said Lon Albert, president of Reece Albert Inc., a heavy construction company in western Texas, in an interview with The Epoch Times. “The young generation, we don’t have that issue. Because they do want to take their [vacation] time.”

Attracting Young Workers

Albert’s company is trying to figure out how to connect with millennials.

“We have to … really tell our story better,” he said.

The company is planning to buy some equipment simulators, put them on a mobile platform, and bring them to high school career fairs.

“If they’re into video games, they’re really going to be into this.”

Caleb Kattner, a regional vice president for Reece Albert, likes to figure out what motivates an employee and then tailor his communication-style to every individual, young or old.

For millennials, he said they respond better if you let them figure out their own way of doing things; they like the challenge. Baby boomers, on the other hand, like to be told how to do it. Millennials also want to be told they’re doing a good job.

The older generation thinks more along the lines of, “I did my job; I don’t need to be told that I did a good job,” Kattner said.

Skipping Shop Class

“We’re really dealing with a decades-old narrative that, unless you go to college, you are not successful in America today,” Greg Sizemore, vice president of workforce development at Associated Builders and Contractors, told The Epoch Times.

He wants to see a return of career and technical education, also known as “career tech ed” or CTE, at high schools and middle schools. Shop class helped him develop the know-how to enter the manual workforce right out of high school.

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A high school student at Bokenskolan in Jokkmokk, Sweden, takes part in a woodwork and handicraft class on Nov. 6, 2013. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

Starting in the 1980s, CTE declined because of additional academic course requirements, declining funding, and a growing favor toward four-year-college degrees, according to a Brookings report.

The Trump administration is making efforts to redevelop CTE, hoping to bridge the workforce gap.

“Construction is the best kept secret in America. People take it for granted,” Sizemore said. “Nothing in any society occurs without construction occurring first.”