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Springfield, MO

Opinion: How we build the Ozarks

Industry Insight

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What images come to mind when you hear the terms economic development and economic growth? Many picture new businesses with sparkling new buildings or renovations.

The common denominator for both is construction.

If construction is necessary for economic development, the urgency of recruiting to the industry will continue to increase as the baby boomers begin to retire. Who will take their place, and will they be ready? A community that no longer strives for economic development faces a future of stagnancy and a declining economy.

The most recent State of the Workforce Survey results for the construction and trades industry revealed 91 percent of respondents had difficulty hiring applicants in the last 12 months. A lack of qualified applicants also was reported as a major concern by 67 percent of construction respondents. Partnering with like-minded businesses and organizations, as well as educational institutions, ensures the talent pipeline will have the skills that businesses need for difficult-to-fill positions. Although postsecondary educational institutions such as Drury and Missouri State universities, as well as Ozarks Technical Community College, provide students with necessary training, there is still the issue of an insufficient number of applicants.

The construction industry is not the only industry feeling the strain from a lack of manpower. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics most recently reporting a 3.3 percent unemployment rate for Springfield, most businesses are struggling to find a qualified workforce; however, construction and manufacturing also have a declining talent pipeline. Reasons speculated for the decline include a lack of interest from the younger generation, a lack of support from K-12 encouraging students to enter the industry or even parents discouraging their children from such a career.

Are students really not interested in these types of careers, or is that only the perception from within the industry?

When asked what they think of a job in manufacturing, many will say dark and dirty. When given tours of modern-day manufacturing facilities, they remark the drastic difference of preconceived perceptions and reality. Construction is very similar. When people are asked about construction, they often picture the person building the house next door or the person fixing the highway. Although important segments of the industry, construction jobs represent a much broader variety of opportunities. To make matters worse, those under 18 years of age who show an interest are unable to enter the industry due to current labor laws.

The best way to recruit teenagers to industries such as construction and manufacturing is to show students the modern careers available and use controlled events to allow students to “test drive” careers.

Build My Future was introduced by numerous local organizations in 2017 for this reason. While many of the first invitations were met with skepticism, the second-annual Build My Future Construction Showcase had over 1,800 student registrations from a 15-county area. With over 60 exhibits at the E-Plex, students were able to gain experience with brick laying, welding, operating machinery, laying tile and navigating design programs. After the event, there was an overwhelming amount of support. But there was still the lingering question: What’s next?

Students with a deeper interest are encouraged to join the Architecture, Construction and Engineering Mentor Program, where they can get a deeper exposure with career opportunities within architecture, construction and engineering. The after-school program connects students with local industry professionals as mentors. The program recently concluded its first year with student presentations at the ACE Mentor Program of the Ozarks Groundbreaking event with parents of participating students invited to attend as well. Many parents were not familiar with the construction industry, so it also was a unique opportunity to network and ask industry professionals the questions they had on behalf of their children.

Connecting with counselors and teachers through career days and educating parents is necessary to allow interested students to further progress in their pursuit of a construction career. It is important to educate those outside of the industry of the variety of career paths and opportunities available in construction. Students are able to learn on the job by entering the workforce immediately after graduation, attending a community college or attending a traditional four- or five-year program. There are careers in the field, in the office and a hybrid of the two for all different interests. Understanding the opportunities for advancement within the industry is also important for overcoming the stereotype that a career in construction isn’t sustainable over a person’s lifetime.

As a community, it is important for us to celebrate our projects, the people who are front and center, and the people behind the scenes. After all, the construction that made your morning commute a headache one week also could be the project that assisted with economic development for the region.

Megan Short is executive director of the Springfield Contractors Association. She can be reached at megan@springfieldcontractors.org.

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