An Emerging Policy Frontier: Workforce Development
One of the hottest topics of 2018 will be the reform of the state’s prevailing wage laws, and because of that, it’s likely that the construction industry as a whole will get a bit more attention from lawmakers this year. The prevailing wage (basically, a “minimum wage” for public construction projects) does not distinguish between union and non-union labor, so the prevailing wage’s requirement that governments pay above-market rates for construction work is, understandably, attractive to most folks in the construction industry—and unattractive to the taxpayers that have to overpay for the work. Put simply, repeal of the prevailing wage would be a policy advancement for the state.
But repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law won’t put Missouri’s tradespeople on the fast track to pauperdom. Indeed, in true supply-and-demand fashion, a shortage of skilled laborers in the construction industry is already driving up salaries there.
“I think that all craft professionals are in the mid-to-upper five-figures, and once you add in per diem and bonuses and incentives, it is not uncommon that we have workers making six-figures,” [Steve Green, vice president of the National Center for Construction Education & Research] said, adding that often accounts “for a lot of overtime.”
With a slew of good paying available jobs, why is the labor shortage so pronounced?
“Construction is not a sexy profession: we don’t attract the younger workers like other professions do,” NCCER president Don Whyte said, adding that his organization is trying to change public perceptions to show that through construction, families can earn a robust middle-class living.
There are a lot of layers to this policy onion. Americans have long placed a premium on a college education, viewing it as a proxy for eventual prosperity while, in important respects, stigmatizing professions where a formal education isn’t required. Certainly college-educated individuals, on average, make more than those who don’t have a college degree, but the rising cost of that education and changing contours of the modern economy have taken a toll on the economic slam-dunk that college once was. Complicating matters further is that as government has subsidized college educations, it has produced more college graduates who otherwise wouldn’t have chosen college — and who instead might have become skilled tradespeople, creating a workforce gap in an industry which, literally, builds our country.
That’s a long way of saying that Missouri probably needs to reassess the way it looks at its workforce policies. The state spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year providing Missourians the opportunity for a college education, but is focusing on college-educated professions a silver bullet for a balanced economic future? Probably not. And that’s why recent efforts to promote apprenticeship programs in the state are not only welcome, but necessary to the economic future of Missouri.
To be sure, the best way to advance that goal will require robust debate, but it’s long past time that the state looked at its workforce portfolio and recognized that a college education leading to gainful employment is good for the state—but so too is a debtless apprenticeship in an industry that will pay handsomely for those services. I hope this important workforce issue gets the attention it deserves this session.