A nail-driving competition on the expo floor exemplifies the high-energy combo of fun and learning to be found at JLC Live.   (Photo: Nicole Tysvaer)
A nail-driving competition on the expo floor exemplifies the high-energy combo of fun and learning to be found at JLC Live. (Photo: Nicole Tysvaer)

In recent years, the shortage of skilled labor in America’s residential construction industry has gone from bad to worse. However, a new drive towards high performance among the trades combined with a climate action war chest of public and private resources to support workforce development shows promise for reversing the trend. In this article, I highlight some key considerations for designing an effective workforce development roadmap, one that will help ensure a stronger, more empowered, and well-resourced community of building professionals.

The “Dumpster Fire” of our Skilled Labor Shortage
Everyone agrees – workforce development in the construction industry has reached a crisis point. In the next four years, residential builders will need to add more than 2 million workers to keep up with demand, according to the Home Builder Institute’s Fall 2023 labor market report. In early 2024, the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics reported over 400,000 job openings across the construction industry, nearly four times the number of openings reported in 2014 (see graph below).

Among the current population of hardworking tradespeople, many are not adequately prepared to adapt to new technologies, increasingly stringent building codes, and federally-subsidized decarbonization initiatives. Since passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in August 2022, my own business has seen an increase in calls from homeowners interested in taking advantage of tax credits to increase the comfort and efficiency of their homes. They often express frustration about not being able to find available, affordable and willing contractors to complete the work. In some cases, contractors try to talk the customer out of electrification and other innovative efficiency upgrades, a risk-averse strategy that I have heard echoed from colleagues across the country.

Attrition is also a big problem for our industry. The Building Talent Foundation – 2021 Homebuilding Workforce Engagement Study points to a lack of “employee engagement” as a root cause of retention issues. According to this study, “the most-cited reason for an employee’s decision to leave their job is the lack of opportunities for career advancement and skill development.” Thus, the data show not a lack of willingness to learn among our construction peers, but rather a lack of professional development opportunities that are holding us back.

However, beyond the nuts and bolts of training and career advancement, a much bigger issue looms over the workforce development conundrum. Builder and building science educator Ben Bogie explains that part of the labor shortage revolves around “cultural issues… it’s become part of our American way that we look at jobs in the trades as a career of last resort, or a ‘less than’ profession.” Bogie credits the persistent silos of the US educational system, whereby young people are recruited into trade schools when they perform poorly in their academic work, as a primary contributor to this marginalization of craft. JLC’s Editor Clayton DeKorne has traced the history of this detrimental bifurcation of career pathways back to early 20th century public education policy.

Bogie aptly calls the state of our workforce development a “dumpster fire” decades in the making, in other words, a managed disaster that has left the industry bereft of a vibrant and well-resourced pipeline for newcomers to enter the field and advance to livable wage jobs. The question remains: will an oncoming wealth of public resources for skilled labor ignite a renaissance of craft in the U.S., or will it only serve to fan the flames of classism and stagnation across our industry?

A Tidal Wave of Resources Approaching
In recent years, the federal government has allocated an unprecedented level of funding for contractor training, most of which is specifically targeted towards decarbonization work such as retrofitting homes with new high performance heat pump technology. Although most of this funding has yet to start flowing, the numbers are staggering. The Inflation Reduction Act allocates $200 million to states for the Contractor Training Grants Program to perform efficiency and electrification upgrades. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is providing $225 million to support the adoption of updated building energy codes, which includes “workforce development” activities such as training and capacity-building for contractors. Power Forward Communities, a coalition of affordable housing nonprofits, received a $2 billion grant from the EPA to retrofit single- and multi-family properties across the U.S., promising the creation of “hundreds of thousands of good-paying local jobs.”

In addition to federal resources, many states and localities have set aside funding for contractor training as an integral part of their climate action goals. For example, New York offers a wide variety of professional development opportunities for NY residents, including on-the-job training incentives. Trade associations, unions, and nonprofit organizations dedicated to building decarbonization are also implementing workforce development programs. Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) recently launched a free online training on deep energy retrofits that qualifies for a Building Performance Institute certification. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) is leading a national effort around advanced building code implementation that will include new resources for contractor capacity-building.

While these new efficiency programs gear up, there has also been a burst of homegrown activity promoting professional development within the building industry. For example, the application of building science theory and practice has gained a strong foothold in contractor education and training. A list at the end of this article shows a sampling of the recent proliferation of building science resources in the field. The popular “BS* and Beer” show has evolved from a live building science webinar during the early pandemic to a series of sold-out highly technical inter-disciplinary courses delivered via in-person symposiums across the country. And for a heftier dose on the scientific principles of building structures, Joe Lstiburek’s invitation-only “Building Science Summer Camp” has become one of the hottest tickets of the season.

Social media has also magnified the visibility of effective practices that increase the quality and productivity of our work. Matt Risinger’s team at The Build Show has been a leader in these efforts, which capitalize on the marketing potential of simple, easy to digest videos that when strung together are raising the bar for high performance homebuilding. Much of this work is funded by manufacturer sponsors, which have become more savvy at distributing how-to information about their products. This may raise eyebrows regarding the biases in contractor education, but the reality is that increasing complexity of engineered building components requires more and more specialized training opportunities to get the job done.

In sum, this influx of climate action resources combined with the current push towards high performance building has the potential to transform the workforce development landscape industry wide. Yet, it remains to be seen if these various stakeholders of the built environment are coordinating efforts on training and education, or even talking to each other.

A Comprehensive Workforce Development Roadmap
To be sure, there is a massive and urgent need to deploy high quality training and certification programs that will prepare hundreds of thousands of contractors in the building trades to meet the demands of a new sustainable economy. Yet, to be effective, the workforce development eco-system should position these learning objectives within the larger context of support necessary to achieve a thriving industry of building professionals. Based on my own experiences in the field and dozens of contractor interviews, consider the following recommendations for designing a comprehensive workforce development roadmap:

1. Focus on Capacity-Building – Any large-scale workforce initiative should include resources that will improve or enhance the business acumen of the hardworking professionals running small and medium-sized contracting companies. This includes coursework and tools that boost contractor’s confidence in bookkeeping, proposal writing, marketing, supervisory skills, and employee retention. In addition, resources are needed to help contractors navigate what Ryan Bevans, Chief Revenue Officer of Sealed, calls the “minutiae” of public incentives. Sealed offers expertise on rebate requirements and smooths the process of reimbursements for contractors because, explains Bevans, “[contractors] are already dealing with so much sophistication and complexity. They don't need another thing placed on them just because the industry is trying to push forward a certain interest or program.”

2. Remove Risk from the Equation – Innovation brings huge liability concerns for contractors that manage projects where the smallest of errors can be extremely costly. Government agencies should explore ways to minimize contractor risk. For example, states could provide warranty and insurance coverage for projects completed by qualified, certified contractors that participate in publicly-funded decarbonization initiatives. Such incentives would not only increase the profit margins for contractors, but also help remove psychological barriers associated with the perceived risks of a novel workflow.

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Nicole Tysvaer

3. Offer Interdisciplinary Learning Opportunities – The image above illustrates the web of stakeholders involved in a single retrofit project, many of whom need specialized knowledge and skills to implement high-quality home improvements with decarbonization goals. For example, not only does the HVAC provider need to understand new heat pump technology, but also a whole team of actors who need to contribute and be knowledgeable (to varying degrees). One of the pure genius aspects of the building science movement is the interdisciplinary nature of the content, as evidenced by the cross-section of presenters and attendees at B.S. and Beer symposiums, which includes contractors, architects, engineers, and policy makers. Such training opportunities should be place-based, so that local communities of building professionals can network and learn from each other.

4. Align Professional Development with Contractor Learning Styles – As someone who has spent decades studying instructional methodologies for youth and adults, one of my biggest frustrations is the frequent mismatch of content and competencies in contractor education. Much of the training delivered online, for example, would be more effective if taught via hands-on experiential demonstrations. Certification program curricula are often text heavy, requiring particular literacy and test-taking skills that are orthogonal to the work tradespeople do in the field. Bevans from Sealed also hears from larger contracting companies that their in-house training and apprenticeship modules are much more essential than any pre-hire coursework, and therefore it will be key to direct some of the workforce development funding to subsidize the contractors’ on-boarding processes for entry-level workers. Bogie has been urging manufacturers to provide more “short, quick chunks of learning” easily accessible via QR codes for when tradespeople are on the job and need product how-to demonstrations.

5. Imbed Sustainability within K-12 Curricula – I imagine it will take decades to transform elementary and secondary education in this country so that craft is revered as much as computer work, and students are exposed to both in equal measure from an early age. However, as a starting point, classroom teachers could begin introducing concepts of sustainability and building science within their coursework such as math, physics, chemistry, literacy, and other subjects. Schools could also work to enlighten students on building careers and burnish the image of contracting work through extracurricular activities such as the Ice Box Challenge.

What Works: Training Plus Community-Building at JLC Live
I recently attended my second JLC Live conference in Providence, RI, an annual event of about 6,000 building professionals that includes a product Expo, educational breakout sessions, and a plethora of hands-on demonstrations. The vibe at this conference is so upbeat and endearing, a real lovefest of all things “light” construction. It’s hard to describe the experience to outsiders, but imagine a conference center full of folks in work boots trolling around like “kids in a candy store,” as described by JLC Live educator Jeremy Kassel. Attendees watch experts build things in real life, share effective practices, learn about the latest tools and techniques, and perhaps engage in a hammering contest.

One particularly unique aspect of this conference is the large number of trade school teenagers who attend, usually donning brightly colored t-shirts with their school logo, moving wide-eyed through the crowd following their instructor (DeKorne affectionately calls them “schools of fish”). Established in 1995, the JLC Live event stands out not only for the content delivered, but also for its sense of camaraderie, creating a multi-generational space where tradespeople can celebrate their unique culture and love of craft. This critical community-building should also be a goal of any workforce development opportunity in our industry.