Build Montana’s workforce; build Montana’s future

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As communities across the nation work to recover from recent natural disasters, many are discovering that while they have plenty of rebuilding to do, they lack the manpower to do it.

This circumstance comes as no surprise to the Montana Contractors’ Association, which has been considering the nationwide shortage of skilled trade workers with trepidation.

A survey conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America revealed that 70 percent of contractors have a hard time finding qualified workers. In Montana, the situation is no different, with many companies indicating they are unable to fill open jobs with skilled employees.

The Montana Contractors’ Association is trying to make Montanans aware of the opportunity available to young men and women who are interested in pursuing careers in the trades. We have partnered with Montana secondary and postsecondary schools, providing outreach to industrial arts classes and supporting scholarships for engineers. We have collaborated with members of the media to spread the word about the rewarding work Montana contractors do, and the benefits the individuals employed in the industry receive for their labor. We worked with our members and schools to promote Construction Week (Oct. 2-6).

But we still struggle to fill the jobs necessary to build Montana’s infrastructure. Why?

The societal pressure to pursue a four-year degree has become prevalent in schools and families, to the point of devaluing the trades and construction jobs. It’s time to take back the honor associated with jobs that involve men and women working with their hands and brains to build the houses, roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and water systems that make Montana our home.

We would like to thank Montana Superintendent of Public Schools Elsie Arntzen for recognizing the growing workforce shortage, and having the courage to promote construction as a viable, rewarding career — a first choice, not a fallback for students who don’t pursue degree programs at four-year schools. In fact, the Montana Contractors’ Association was pleased to enter into a partnership agreement with Superintendent Arntzen and the Montana Building Industry Association recently to further those efforts. We are gratified that the superintendent is emphasizing the need for schools to provide education and training programs that prepare young people for the thousands of jobs available as welders, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, diesel mechanics, and equipment operators.

These jobs, which typically pay extremely well and include generous benefit packages, often lead to supervisory/managerial positions for those who show talent and initiative—far from the “dead-end job” stigma with which they’ve been labeled. The ability for young people to move into these positions without the pressure of crushing student loan debt often puts them in a much better financial position than some of their peers who pursue other types of degrees.

We don’t have all the solutions yet, but we do know we need to change attitudes regarding trades education by supporting it, not only in concept, but in practice.

We need to nurture our students’ interest in careers in construction by investing in industrial arts programs in our high schools. Our industrial arts instructors need to be trained in their areas of expertise, and the equipment they use to teach our students needs to be current.

Plus, parents, educators, and counselors should attach the appropriate credence to careers in the construction and related trades for their students. Four-year degrees are not the only path to success, and students who choose to follow an alternate route deserve equal support and accolades from educators and our communities.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction across the country is expected to add 790,400 jobs by 2024, and is in the top five industries projected to grow the most between now and 2024. 

What does that mean? We don’t have time to waste.

Let’s build Montana!

Jim Berve, of Billings, is president of the Montana Contractors’ Association board of directors.

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