Southern indiana school could solve construction worker shortage news newsandtribune.com electricity measurements units

The intensity of local builders’ plight, as well as the far-reaching effects of the construction labor shortage, inspired Smith to reach out to Paul Holba, One Southern Indiana’s director of talent development, to brainstorm an innovative solution to the issue. Their idea: a building trades school.

In the building construction world, the reason for a worker shortage goes back to the the Great Recession. When building slowed during that time period, many workers left the industry for other work, and while the economy has come back around, they haven’t, Smith said. Additionally, the profession is no longer as visible for workers who may have been interested in construction jobs. And regular people are feeling the impacts.

The cost of construction labor, as well as the price of land and lumber, has risen over the years. That high price has been passed onto consumers. It is now nearly impossible for a builder to sell a new home for less than $200,000, Smith said. Those $100,000 to $150,000 starter homes of yesteryear? “Those days are gone,” Smith said.

He and Holba believe a building trades school might help — maybe with home prices, but certainly with the pains that the businesses in the sector are feeling. Especially if those local businesses are involved in the school’s creation — as they were in the institution that inspired Smith.

In Southern Indiana, as more jobs flow into the area through River Ridge and other business hubs, housing has become almost as needed and just as scarce. One study from the City of Jeffersonville predicts that the city will be short 2,000 housing units by 2027.

Currently, there are schools in the area that teach building trades, such as the Prosser Career Education Center, but they’re too generalized for Smith. The students who attend Prosser may learn how to build a home, but there is no program entirely devoted to just one part of building that home.

The building trades school would be a place for Prosser students to attend after they graduate or it could be for current employees of subcontractors or workers looking to make a career change. At the school, they’d be able to form relationships with the companies involved to get jobs with the businesses as soon as they graduate.

So far, local businesses and organizations have told Holba and Smith that they’re interested in the school, but because 1si and BDASI are nonprofits, Holba and 1si’s director of marketing and communications, Suzanne Ruark, don’t think they can fund the project on their own.

“We’re looking for that daring investor who can envision the future of Southern Indiana, who can actually anticipate what this place is going to be like in 2030, which is not going to look anything like it is now, and can take advantage of that,” Ruark said.

In addition to broaching the idea with businesses, Holba is interested in persuading local governments and organizations, such as the National Association of Builders and Contractors, to contribute to the project. He’s also applying for grants.

While college graduates typically earn more than half of what those who just attended high school do, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, the median salary for an HVAC mechanic installer was still $47,080 in 2017, and the median salary for an electrician was $54,110, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Smith is already trying to change the local perception of construction jobs. The BDASI is launching a program called Build Your Future, which will give local developers and builders in the area marketing materials that they can bring to places and events, such as schools and job fairs, to educate the public on available jobs.

“We want to start working in the schools, reaching out to the kids that are in the 5th and 6th and 7th grades to say, hey, you don’t just have to be an engineer… or a doctor or pick anything that requires years and years of university education,” Smith said. “There are other opportunities and options out there that you can start thinking about and working toward.”

He is currently working on a series of classes meant to equip lower-level employees at local businesses with the skills that they need to become supervisors, as well as another program that helps local companies keep the workers that they currently employ.

Creating another program completely centered around building trades makes sense to Holba because, he believes, good homes are directly tied to attracting more companies to the area. For example, if Amazon had decided to establish its second headquarters in the Louisville area, those 50,000 jobs would have created an intense need for more homes.