Industry Veteran Shares Strategies for Growing the Skilled Trades Workforce
Q&A with Kevin E. Ponder, Director of Professional Placement Services & Workforce Development
Working in skilled trades staffing for the past 20 years, Kevin Ponder has dedicated his career to growing the construction industry and ensuring that contractors and subcontractors have the best, most talented workforce available.
Today, Ponder serves as the Director of Professional Placement Services & Workforce Development at PeopleReady Skilled Trades. In his role, he is helping to develop the next generation of skilled trades workers and to connect construction leaders with rewarding positions. Ponder sees first-hand the difference between the number of people entering the field and the number of people leaving. And it’s for that very reason that he’s driven to educate men and women about construction careers and the advancement opportunities available within the industry.
The worker shortage in the skilled trades is one of the construction industry’s most significant hurdles. We asked Ponder for his thoughts on the factors contributing to the crisis and strategies for growing the skilled workforce.
What do you feel has contributed most to the skilled trades worker shortage?
This has been a challenge for as long as I’ve been in the construction industry. It really started when public school systems removed shop classes from middle and high schools. I first worked with a lathe and learned how to weld when I was in eighth grade, but nowadays, kids don’t get that same exposure. For more than 30 years, we’ve seen school systems push young individuals towards college degrees, failing to acknowledge other career paths out there.
From your perspective, how do we bring awareness back to the skilled trades as an attractive career path?
Changing our society’s perception of construction careers is an important starting point. Informing institutions, parents and students about training options, costs, career pathways and earning potential is fundamental to getting more people in the skilled trades. We’re starting to see schools and nonprofits work together to give young people exposure to the trades and construction careers.
That exposure is critical. If young people don’t see these skills used, they don’t know the importance of them. They don’t understand that the roads you drive on, the bridges you cross, the store you buy your groceries in and the roof over your head were all built and serviced by men and women who work in the skilled trades. These are skills our youth should be proud of having.
Beyond exposure, the industry must still combat myths about pay and advancement. Compare the average pay of a skilled tradesperson to a college graduate with a four-year degree. Look at what each owes after four years of training or college and what they’re making one, five and ten years into their careers. One of the main differences is that you can earn while learning in the trades. Plus, many of these workers go on to be master-level tradespeople, managers, salespeople or even business owners—all of which can lead to even higher pay.
Every day, someone who works in the skilled trades impacts our lives, and they make a good living while doing so. That’s the message that must be shared with our youth.
Do you have suggestions for getting that message out to young people?
As someone dear to me used to say, “It takes a village.” There must be an industry commitment to training along with local, regional and national social media campaigns to change the perception of construction careers. This must be combined with getting shop classes back in our middle and high schools, or at a minimum, partnering with nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, where young people get exposure to building and using hand tools.
The problem we’re facing is that many of these efforts aren’t well funded or, if they are, they are highly localized. So, it’s up to organizations operating within the construction industry to increase its workforce development efforts.
Looking more broadly at the construction industry, what else must happen?
Changing the tide of the past 30 years will take everyone rowing in the same direction. The good news is that people who are more socially driven to give back and invest in others are being promoted into management and ownership positions. I believe this is why we’ve seen more advancement in employee and workforce development initiatives over the past 10 years than in the previous 20.
In addition to this boost in workforce development, nonprofits are working to increase awareness and change the perception of the trades. For more than 15 years, I’ve been involved with these nonprofit initiatives, and I’ve seen first-hand the impact they can have on developing the next generation of trades workers. I’d love to see that momentum continue, with greater commitment throughout the industry!
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