Solution to America's 'skills gap'

Growing numbers of employers are expressing alarm over job openings that remain unfilled for lack of qualified workers.

But even while the subject of the “skills-gap” is garnering headlines in business journals, and generating action from President Barack Obama, there is one sector that is primed to see healthy job growth in the coming years – the construction industry. 

According to the Associated General Contractors (AGC), the leading trade organization of general contractors, construction employers added more than 19,000 workers to payrolls in March, bringing industry employment to the highest level since June 2009.  Ken Simonson, chief economist at the AGC, said during an interview with an association of trade group executives that the rate of construction hiring continues to outrun job growth in the overall economy.

"Furthermore, the pickup has been well balanced, as both nonresidential and residential construction segments added workers last month and over the past 12 months,” Simonson said.

The data might be news to some but those of us in the business of supplying highly trained and skilled workers are well aware of the uptick in construction hiring. And, as is the case of the iron workers, we are out front in the race to help fill the shortage of skilled craft workers.  Today's projects require well-trained workers who are experts at delivering high-quality output safely, on time and on budget.

This month, for example, we announced a new milestone in the nearly 120-year-long history of the iron workers:  We now have 101 American Welding Society Accredited Training Facilities in the United States.  These accredited training facilities allow the iron workers to quickly and efficiently train and certify large numbers of welders. As an  historic leader in training, qualifying and certifying welders, our apprenticeship facilities are well ahead on the path to  recruit, train and deliver  the highly-trained and skilled iron workers necessary for our nation’s future.

The custom facilities effectively render us a market-leader in turning out highly-skilled certified workers capable of meeting the growing demand for welders, said Ed Abbott, of the iron workers.

"The advantage of having these many ATFs is that it demonstrates why we are the industry leader," said Abbott. "They provide geographic convenience to more of our members, and they allow us to qualify any apprentice or journeyperson who is ready to work."

In addition, we are deploying recruiting strategies and tactics designed to welcome greater numbers of women and young people into the skilled trades. For instance, we recently funded scholarships for women members to attend the nation’s largest construction industry conference focused on women in the trades, taking place in Sacramento, Calif., in late-April.

Indeed, the Obama administration need look no further than the iron workers as it attempts to refashion the nation’s post-secondary education structure to include more skilled-trades training options, as well as apprenticeships. 

The iron workers are uniquely poised to lead the charge to fill the skills-gaps within the construction industry, ultimately uplifting large swaths of the economy, and providing solid middle-class incomes and a career-long commitment for an even greater numbers of workers.

Wise is general president of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers.

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