Construction Leadership Insights

How to Solve the Construction Industry Talent Shortage

(This is an edited transcript of a recent interview with Tim Murphy, CEO of the Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange. To listen to the entire interview click this link.  The conversation focuses on how to solve the construction industry’s talent shortage by shifting society’s often-misplaced emphasis on a four-year college degree as the only barometer of success, and by emphasizing the opportunities in the trades now available to young people who may not be best served by the traditional college route.)

Eric: Tim, welcome to Construction Genius.

Tim: Thanks, Eric – it’s good to be here.

Eric: I really appreciate you taking the time, and we’re gonna have a great conversation today. We’re going to explore the real need to change attitudes in our society – the attitude that only by going to college can you achieve success. So, tell me about your nephew with the welding certificate.

Tim: My niece got married last year to a young man, a bright guy who comes from a family that has a professional background. His parents are white-collar professionals. His sister is a white-collar professional.

But when he was young, he realized that he had a real opportunity – working with his hands. And so he decided that he wouldn’t go the traditional college route. He instead went and got a certificate as a welder. He received a lot of training, many different types of welding technologies that he’s now mastered. And he received his certification to be a welder.

He made that choice because, as bright as he is, he didn’t think that college was necessarily going to lead him down the right path.

Eric: You’re a parent as well, and as a parent, I don’t necessarily want my children to go to college if it’s not a good fit. When I tell people that, sometimes they do a double take and look at me as if I’m weird. Why do you think the trades aren’t as valued as a legitimate, genuine career to pursue?

Tim: Well, a couple of reasons. First, it’s a dirty job. I think people today have the attitude that if you have to wash your hands at the end of a day’s work, then it’s work that’s beneath you. Kids today don’t aspire to physical labor or working with their hands.

And they’re told from the very start that in order to be successful you have to go to college. Obviously, there are many tremendously successful people who’ve gone on to college. And every child should have the opportunity to go to college. But college isn’t necessarily the right path for every kid.

And for our educators and parents to take this blanket approach – that “If my kid doesn’t go to college I failed them” – for them to have that attitude, they’re turning their backs on a whole host of careers. A child can grow to be very successful if they go into something that requires career technical education such as the trades, or manufacturing, or vocational health care, for example.

Eric: It seems a shift is needed in our culture in a number of different areas. Number one is with the parents. They can often feel guilty if their children don’t go to college. But also in the education system itself, the vocational trades have been deemphasized since, I don’t know, maybe the 1970s.

Tim: I think you’re right, Eric. With the advent of the personal computer back in the 70s – I recall when I was in junior high, I had the opportunity to take shop class and metal class, but then there was also a brand new class that was added on – computer programming. And over the years computer programming gained quite a bit of speed over shop and auto class.

We have a growing technological society, where everything is computerized, and everything has a screen. Everything is now Wi-Fi connected. People have this attitude now that you have to embrace technology. You have to embrace higher education. And so they’re turning their backs on the construction trades.

Eric: So what do you think is needed to get that shift to happen?

Tim: First, parents have to realize that if their child doesn’t go to college, they haven’t failed them. There are other, great paths available to them.

A good friend of mine calls it The Battle of the Sweatshirts – when you go to go to the grocery store and you see the parents walking around with sweatshirts proclaiming, “I’m a USC Dad” or “My Kid Goes to Ohio State.” It’s a type of competition. It’s a badge of pride. But you never see somebody wearing a T-shirt that says “AT&T” or “My Kid Goes to I.T. Technical Institute.” Society puts an overinflated value on a four-year degree.

Eric: It’s interesting you mention the USC dad – I’m wondering if his particular kid is on the crew team, right?

Tim: Well the recent college admissions scandal highlights this. Part of the problem is that these kids came from families where it appears money wasn’t an obstacle to getting them into a good school.

Eric: There was cachet about getting into the quote-unquote, “right school.”

Tim: That’s right. And there’s a great book I read last year by this guy, named J.D. Vance, called Hillbilly Elegy.

Eric: Excellent book.

Tim: Yeah, it was. It’s about a guy who grew up in Appalachia, dirt poor, went in the military and then, based off of what he earned in the military, he was able to go to Yale Law School. And after time he came to realize that the entry into Yale gave him social capital.

Parents are growing increasingly concerned with this social capital. If their kid isn’t just going to college, but going to the right college, then that will pave the way to an easier, more successful life as an adult.

Eric: I was listening to a podcast today, and the speaker was talking about going to Harvard with Elena Kagan, who’s now a Supreme Court justice. She was speaking to them, and said, this is not going to be like The Paper Chase here. You won’t have to worry about your grades so much. You have arrived. Look around you. These are the people who are going to be in power and in a place of authority and influence.

And that may be a true statement from a political perspective, or from a governmental perspective. But our country is driven, not so much by our government still, but by the entrepreneurial forces that have shaped our nation, and construction is a wonderful opportunity to express that entrepreneurial spirit and entrepreneurial urge.

Tim: Absolutely. There are many stories about successful college dropouts in Silicon Valley, who’ve gone on to create major companies. Steve Jobs dropped out to create Apple. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out to create Facebook.

There are people who might be going down the college path and realize, “This isn’t what I want.” And they go and they start construction companies. Why don’t we hold them in the same esteem? It comes back to the attitude that, if you have to wash your hands at the end of the day, then it’s a dirty job and it’s beneath you.

Eric: I’ve worked with a couple of clients for years. These guys started their business out of a truck over 25 years ago, and they now have a thriving, booming construction company that employs over 400 people, and that has a massive regional impact. And neither of these guys went to college, but they’re super smart. They’re super sharp. They’ve had a huge, positive impact because of their commitment to the construction trade.

Tim: Well I’d laugh and say that you can just look to the fact that I have a college degree, and knowing what my academic standing was in college – a college degree is just something that you hang on a lot these days. It’s not an indicator of how smart, or hardworking, or committed somebody is to their own personal success.

It’s regrettable that a young person, who might want to go and start their own construction business, would have a hard time securing a twenty-thousand dollar loan to get them started. But a bank will loan them two hundred thousand dollars to get a four-year degree.

Eric: There’s a wrong message there. I think about my kids, and some of them are definitely candidates for college, but perhaps others aren’t. You can graduate from high school when you’re 18, and you can go to a trade school, or you can get an apprenticeship at 20, 21, or 22 years old. You could be making 60 or 70 thousand dollars a year. You could be learning all about the construction trade. You could be out of school debt, and you could soon be making the middle class to upper middle-class income that politicians emphasize these days.

Tim: Absolutely. The policymakers and employers need to be honest about the types of available jobs. Governors and legislators are tired of hearing about students who are saddled with debt, but can’t find jobs appropriate to their level of education.

And at the same time, the construction employers say that they can’t find workers who have the training or education to fill the open construction jobs. Which brings me back to career technical education. We are working harder to get more of our lodge members in the legislature to understand the value of career technical education.

Eric: Let’s talk about that. The Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange is the industry’s oldest and largest association in the Greater Sacramento area. And it involves contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, and industry support organizations. As the CEO of the Builders Exchange, tell us a little bit more about the programs that you guys have in place that emphasize workforce development.

Tim: At the Builders Exchange, we have programs that are geared towards high school kids. We have a small but willing team who works hard to get kids interested in construction-based careers. We have two tracks in our programs; one that focuses on high school kids that want to go into the trades, and one that focuses on high school kids who are going on to post-secondary degrees in architecture, engineering, or construction management.

Eric: The track in the trades is called the Design Build Competition.

Tim: Correct.

Eric: And the other track is a mentoring program.

Tim: That’s correct.

Eric: Tell us a little bit about both.

Tim: The mentoring program is for high school kids on the college track. We have professionals in architecture, engineering, and construction management. They go into high school and they work with kids in the classes, or in some cases in afterschool programs, and they teach them about these career areas.

It’s a comprehensive program where the kids are presented at the start of the semester with an RFP and the kids have to respond over the course of the year to the RF piece. The mentors come in. They talk about the architectural aspect, then the engineering aspect, and then the construction management aspect. They work together throughout the year and simulate the development of a project. And then they do presentations at the end of the year.

But in the meantime, they have in-class mentors who give lectures. They go on field trips to various construction sites, or other job sites. It gives the kids just a snapshot of the type of work they’ll be doing if they pursue a professional construction career.

Eric: That’s awesome. And you’ve been doing that for about 11 years now?

Tim: Yes, about 11 years. I just checked online and over 2000 students have gone through this program. And right now we’re working on making some changes to the program, to make it more closely reflective of the actual work accomplished in construction today.  So a little less theory, and a little more practical application. If these kids really catch fire and latch onto these opportunities, then they’re already trained in the mindset of what’s needed in these professional careers.

Eric: So that’s the office perspective, but then from the field perspective you have the Design Build Competition, right?

Tim: We’ve been doing Design-Build for more than 30 years. We have over 30 high schools participating this year. The Design-Build is taking place on May 1st and 2nd at Consumnes River College.

Eric: This is where you bring together high school construction teams?

Tim: Right. These kids come together early in the year. First, they design a 96-square-foot structure that is approved by an architect volunteer within our organization. Then they all come together, using materials donated to the Design-Build competition, and over the course of two days, they build that structure.

And they’re judged on their design, they’re judged on their craftsmanship, they’re judged on teamwork, and they’re judged on safety. Awards are given to the teams that excel in those areas.

Eric: So they’ve got a plan, right? They’ve got to build it, right? They’ve got to do it safely then.

Tim: Exactly.

Eric: That’s beautiful. It’s funny – I went to one of my most terrifying places. I went to IKEA this past week, and my wife and I bought two beds for my older sons. And I was telling my wife that I have to get one of our sons to help me build the bed. I was away during the weekend, and he actually built his own bed by himself, and he was so delighted. He’s 13. And I said listen, man – this delight that you have in the building, you could take this and you could build a career. You could build a whole business. There are so many opportunities if you go into construction.

Tim: Well, send him to us when he’s in high school because the SRBX programs focus on getting kids excited about the construction-related fields. Once they’ve gone through our programs, they move on to community colleges to pursue certification. We offer scholarships to help them go on to college, if they’e going to pursue a four-year degree, or we can introduce them to an apprenticeship program in the trades, depending on their interests.

Eric: Your organization has given out over 140 thousand dollars in scholarships through the Create Mentoring Program over the years?

Tim: Yes, but with the SRBX program the amount that we’ve now given out in scholarships exceeds half a million dollars.

Eric: That’s beautiful. So that’s for kids who are pursuing careers in the trades, and kids who are pursuing college degrees. You know, as a dad you get a little caught up in sports, and I look at my kids and I think, “I don’t have any D1 athletes.” But I do know that if they have an interest in construction, the construction companies are so desperate. Seventy-five percent of construction companies are looking for help, both in the field and in the office. They’re now willing to commit time, and energy, and resources to talented young people. It’s a great opportunity.

Tim: Well they’re forced to – career technical education programs like shop class and metal class are making a comeback, but far too slowly to meet the needs of our industry. But kids who have the drive and are willing to do this kind of work – the companies will hire and train them on the job. Ideally, the kids will have some experience, and maybe even take some courses at community college towards that certificate. But companies will grab them up now because the need is so great.

Eric: I was just talking to my kid about an idea. His uncle runs a general contracting company. I said, “Hey, listen, you could go work for your uncle for a couple of years. You could go to community college, and take care of your general education, and through that process, you can stay out of debt. Then you could go to a university, get your C.M., and maybe go to Cal Poly or Sac State or Chico. Those are great programs here in our area.

And if you go that path, with both the field experience and the office experience, you’re going to have a ticket that you can write, and you can go work for a general contractor, or sub for 10 or 15 years, learn the business, and then go start your own gig when you’re in your 30s or your 40s.

Tim: Absolutely. There are many talented kids who go into construction, who end up running very successful companies as they learn the trades. They learn the business, and they grow in their careers, and they decide that they want to chart their own destiny.

Eric: You’re not only the CEO of the Regional Builders Exchange here, but you’re also involved in the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber.

Tim: Right. I’ve been on the board for the past nine years.

Eric: Every year, in this area, there is something that we call the Cap-to-Cap. Can you explain that, and explain the message that you’re crafting for our political leaders in Washington?

Tim: The Cap-to-Cap program stands for the capital of California to our nation’s capital. So we go from Sacramento to Washington D.C.

This will be the forty-ninth year that the Sacramento Metro Chamber has organized this program, where business leaders and elected officials come together to address issues that are important to our region. For several days we meet with the administration, we meet with congressional leadership, we meet with policy leaders and think tanks, and we talk about the issues that are important to Sacramento, to invest more of our tax dollars into our community.

Eric: That’s great. And what is your message for those political leaders in regards to the construction industry?

Tim: I’m on the workforce and education team. We address a case study in our workforce position paper that calls for increased career technical education funding. Also, other federal programs that would put more resources into workforce training, emphasizing the present need for skilled workers in the construction trades, for example. With the last recession, we lost so many employees, and we still haven’t overcome that deficit.

We address that issue with Congress. We let them know that California’s already an expensive place to live and do business and thrive. And housing costs continue to increase in construction. We all know that construction material costs are fluctuating and going up – steel especially. But it’s really the labor – if you have to pay a marginal employee more to keep him working, as opposed to paying a great employee, that’s going to drive up the cost.

We can help control the costs, and provide for the workers who will build in a thriving economy. We need to have the workers to do it. So we have to train them young.

Eric: That’s terrific. As the leader of a significant industry organization, what are two or three things that you would say to industry leaders, educators, and political folks, to address this issue of workforce development, and the shortage of labor in the construction industry?

Tim: To our elected representatives, I’d say that more career technical education programs are needed. We need a workforce that can replace those who are retiring from the industry. That’s a huge issue. For every five journeymen that are retiring, there’s only one apprentice entering the field. In a couple of years, with the average age of construction workers in the upper 40s right now, we’re approaching a major deficit in our workforce.

We need to get these kids interested at a young age. We need to give them the training and encourage high school students to go into these careers – the kids that don’t go into college. We can offer them an alternative that will provide them with employment readiness.

Secondly, to parents I would say, what kind of work-life balance do you want your children to have? I started as a white-collar professional, and when my kids were young there were often nights when I wasn’t home for dinner, and they went to bed before I got home.

As they got a little older, I’d make it to their baseball games if I could. Sometimes I had to miss their games. If parents are worried about their kids having a good work-life balance, then think about the construction trades. They’ll be off work around 3 o’clock in the afternoon on average. So for your future grandkids, your children will not only watch the game, but they could coach the team. They could have dinner as a family. They could put the kids down and read to them at night. They could help them with their homework because they can’t bring a construction job home at the end of the day.

Eric:  You can have a great work-life balance by working in the trades, particularly for field folks.

Tim: Exactly. And lastly, not everybody needs to go to college to be successful. At the top of our conversation, I mentioned my nephew, Brian, who went on to get his welder certificate. And after he got a certificate, he went out, and he created his own company. He didn’t go work for somebody else. He thought, “I believe in myself. I believe in my skills. I’m going to put these skills to work.”

He’s been wildly successful – he has more work than he can handle, and he’s encouraging other guys who are coming out with their welders’ certificates. He’s hiring some guys, and then he’s passing some work on to some other guys who are starting their own businesses because there’s a lot of money to be made right now in that industry.

So he’s a great success story, even though he didn’t go down the path of college success his parents had laid out for him. He found his own path in the trades.

Eric: I have a couple of brother-in-law’s who’ve done exactly the same thing, and they’re actually first generation immigrants to the United States, and they are both extremely successful as construction professionals, starting their own company and not going the traditional college route.

Tim, I really appreciate your time here. One question I like to ask my guests – we’re here in Sacramento, the farm-to-fork capital. What is your favorite area restaurant?

Tim: There are so many choices that we have. Mulvaney’s is always a favorite. The food is fantastic. Not only that – Patrick and Bob Mulvaney, the proprietors – they’re great community partners. They’ve done a lot for Sacramento, including the St. Baldrick, for which I recently shaved my head.

Eric: The Builders Exchange had a great event earlier this year, and I was blown away by the food. I thought it was really good. I was pleasantly surprised because it was a large group and they did an awesome job catering there.

Tim: They are fantastic.

Eric: Awesome. Well. I really appreciate your time, Tim, and all the best you with your endeavors.

Tim: Thanks, Eric.

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