Unexcused absence – construction trade programs and our schools

by Ryan Acra

I ran into an article released recently from the Association of General Contractors.  The AGC article sited a poll they conducted which found eighty percent of firms in the construction industry reported some difficulty in finding skilled workers for hourly craft positions and more than 60% find filling roles in skilled trades an extreme struggle.  This was a nationwide poll, but it doesn’t seem any better in Montana.  A quick search on the MontanaWorks page reveals nearly 700 openings currently.  An Indeed employment search appears to be even more dire with nearly 900 openings.

five yellow hard hats on gray surface

I have had a hand in recruiting for construction companies in some capacity for nearly 20 years.  I have experienced the skills gap firsthand both in Great Falls and throughout the country.  One of the creative ways I liked to build the quality labor strength of the companies with whom I’ve worked is to visit high school and other school construction trade education programs. I enjoyed talking to students who show an interest in the industry and explaining how they can find a successful career doing many of the things they enjoy about the classes and activities that they enjoy through their schools.

(recent photo of Great Falls High School, currently under construction)

Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, many of these programs and activities are no longer available to large numbers of students, if they are available at all.  Without these programs, fewer students are introduced to construction trades and there are fewer opportunities for construction companies and recruiters like me to reach students.  Without those outlets, students don’t easily learn about the strong careers available to them in the construction industry.   A poll by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found that more than 85% of school counseling programs focus on getting all students prepared for traditional four-year college programs.

So, what’s the downside of prepping kids for a traditional college experience?  Wouldn’t everyone benefit from a college degree, or at very least learning the subjects that would lead to the successful completion of a four-year degree program?  Probably not.

Every day we learn more about learning styles and strengths.  It’s not a shock to know not everyone enjoys math as much as English, or that history isn’t a class that makes college a college freshman’s mouth water.  We know some students learn most by doing and being hands-on, and that they would be more successful in careers that allowed that type of learning and management.

man standing and using measuring level on road

In fact, the same poll showed around 68% of high school graduates go straight to college.  Without trade and strong skills programs and opportunities for younger students, that leaves more than 30% of high school graduates without career-ready skills they may have received if they graduated a decade or longer ago.

The statistics get even more interesting when you consider 38.5% of students who begin a four-year program don’t complete them.  That means not only are they not educationally prepared but now they also have a long period of wasted time and potential student loan debt to overcome.

three men laughing while looking in the laptop inside room

Another article I found reported that more than 53% of college recent college graduates were either unemployed or under-employed.  It turns out the technology sector is expected to have displaced 75 million jobs.  Yet, within that same time period, will create 133 million new jobs, most of which will be non-degreed, hands-on type roles.  Even with those factors in play, we continue to lose construction-related vocational programs at all levels.

The average cost for a bachelor’s degree in the US is $127,000.  With student loans, the payback could be much higher. And that’s just tuition, it doesn’t include all of the other costs involved with a college education.




So, let’s follow the lead recently laid out by Bob Oakland and his family from City Motors who donated $500,000 for the Great Falls High’s new Career and Technical Education Center. With more help like theirs, Great Falls can lead Montana and the nation in celebrating careers in the construction industry.  More than 183,000 jobs will become available over the next 15 years in the construction labor market alone.  The graphic below shows the number of positions in various trades held by Baby Boomers expected to retire in the next decade:

What an amazing opportunity!  Students prepared for these types of roles will have a strong job market, good wages, and often great benefits.  The BLS says the average annual income for construction workers in 2017 was $44,960, and that number is expected to grow substantially over the next 10+ years.  We could position youth in our community to be able to take advantage of trades like these, or, if they are more inclined to follow the traditional college path, take advantage of under-enrolled construction degree programs like architecture, engineering, construction management, and more.

An architect working on a draft with a pencil and ruler

Programs preparing students for careers outside of college degree programs have also been proven to raise graduation rates.  An unskilled worker with no high school degree makes an average of $21,000 their first five years out of school, while a high school graduate with trade education experience averages nearly $10,000 more.

We need funding, creativity, amazing partnerships, and a supportive community.  All of it is possible.  So let’s do it.  Let’s make disappearing construction and STEM programs an unexcused absence from our schools.


Department of Labor and Statistics

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Department of Labor – Idaho


Association of General Contractors