The State We’re In: NH Labor Shortage and how the ‘I Build New Hampshire’ initiative could help

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Click the link above to watch the full interview on NH PBS’s The State We’re In.

Wherever you go in New Hampshire, you see “help wanted” signs dotting the windows. One of the sectors hit hard by the continuing labor shortage is construction. A new education initiative called “I Build New Hampshire” is trying to encourage more people to explore careers in the trades. Joshua Reap and Jennifer Landon from the Associated Builders and Contractors of New Hampshire and Vermont (ABC NH/VT) discuss the goals of the project.

⇒ Learn more about “I Build New Hampshire” educational initiative here.

This transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. View the entire episode above.

Melanie Plenda: Josh, what is the average age of a trade worker in the Granite State?

Joshua Reap: Right now it’s approximately 52, and that number is just growing higher and higher. We’re at a crisis that’s exacerbated a lot by what we’re seeing here, which is a huge demand for single-family home construction, multi-family home construction, and anything else you can name, but part of the challenge is we don’t have enough people to build. We’re doing okay, but we can always use more people to come into the trades and literally help build our future. 

Melanie Plenda: Why are jobs in the trades going unfilled?

Joshua Reap: I think part of that is there’s been a stigma for a very long time that construction was this low tech, low wage job – you dig a ditch and that’s it. The reality is construction is a high-tech, high-wage, you earn while you learn job. You are going to find that a lot of people that dig ditches do it with high-tech sophisticated machinery that’s GPS-guided; you have to go to school for a lot of this stuff. I think there’s also a lot of misnomers. People just don’t know that story very well, and it’s part of the reason why the Initiative exists. It’s to help share that experience, share that story, hear from the people that are in the field, talking about how great it is to be a carpenter and how that relates to what they liked to do in college and how it translated into a successful career.

Melanie Plenda: Jennifer, does that old notion that a traditional college degree is needed to obtain a high-paying and satisfying career play into that problem as well?

Jennifer Landon: There used to be a saying that you will make over a million dollars more over your lifetime with a four-year degree than somebody who doesn’t have that degree. Although that may be somewhat true, I don’t know where that information comes from. I think that there’s this misnomer that a four-year college degree is the only path to success in this industry. College is always an option but regardless of what the career is that you’re getting into, some kind of education and training is going to be required. It doesn’t matter what it is that you’re doing, something beyond high school will be required. In this industry, we’ve got these ‘earn while you learn’ opportunities; if you’re required to go through some type of education and training or an apprenticeship program, the employers oftentimes will pay for that education for you. Part of the I Build New Hampshire Initiative involves really helping people. We talk about our youth a lot, but it’s really helping everyone make informed decisions about their career opportunities.

Melanie Plenda: What are the consequences of not having enough people to work in the trades?

Joshua Reap: I think the biggest challenge is what we’re seeing today: right now, builders can’t find enough people to work for them. One of the immediate consequences the typical person might see is, why is my house taking three months longer? Or, I can’t get a plumber to service my HVAC unit in my condominium or my house. They told me it’s going to be three weeks to fix that leaky pipe I have. Five, six years ago it was almost same-day service. You can still have companies that meet that need, but as there’s not enough people coming to the trades, that delay is going to be felt more and more.

Jennifer Landon: There’s also an economic impact of this; when you think of trying to bring businesses into the state of New Hampshire, we may need a new manufacturing facility. Well, somebody has to build that new manufacturing facility. We want to make sure that we have the pipeline all the way from the craft labor up to the owner that’s necessary in order to bring new business into our state.

Joshua Reap: When you don’t have enough people in the trades you’re creating something called backlog, and backlog is a combination of a variety of factors. If I were to set out all my work today, how long would it take me from today till the end to finish it? Contractors are experiencing a very long backlog, which in part is because there’s demand for services, but the unspoken part of that is the craft labor shortage.

Melanie Plenda: Can you talk about how you’re working with young people on communicating the value of construction?

Jennifer Landon: Just recently, Governor Sununu signed a proclamation declaring October as Careers in Construction month, so one of the things that we’re doing is gathering a series of videos that we’re going to be sharing with our educators so that they can share those with their students. It’s a wide variety of different opportunities that are available in the trades. It’s the New Hampshire PBS videos that we’re showing, and then local New Hampshire companies showing New Hampshire people on New Hampshire jobs the wide variety of careers that there are. We also have schools that are contacting us to try to get employers into their schools to do demonstrations and to talk about their careers. It’s really an awareness campaign that we’re on right now. 

Back in March, it was Women in Construction month. We had over 70 women complete profiles that are on the I Build New Hampshire website, talking about all the variety of careers that they’re in. One of the things most people associate with construction is swinging a hammer or maybe working as a plumber or electrician. The amount of careers that are related to the construction industry is actually mind-blowing when you think of it: we need people to do the skilled trades of course, but we also need accountants, business development, lawyers, truck drivers, warehouse managers, you name it. This industry is so vast and all of those careers are really important jobs to help the economy move forward.

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Granite State News Collaborative

The Granite State News Collaborative is a statewide multimedia news collaborative that draws on and amplifies the strengths of its members to expand and add missing dimensions to coverage of issues of concern to the NH public as a whole, as well as to particular communities. Through coordinated reporting and engagement activities, the Collaborative will pursue inclusive and responsive coverage that builds public trust and holds government accountable to its citizens