US demand for workers grows, especially in construction

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As the Associated Press reports, there's no shortage of work for Mike Kirby, a 21-year-old apprentice electrician in Iowa who's lately been on the job 10 hours a day, seven days a week.

He and others in the traditional trades are in great demand throughout the United States, with many trades groups and employers hotly recruiting high school students to try and fill the growing need for everything from plumbers to bricklayers and drywallers.

Despite the opportunities, the jobs are proving a tough sell.

"That's the way it's preached: 'If you don't go to college, you can't do anything.' But obviously that's not true," says Kirby, who'll finish his apprenticeship with Shaw Electric in Davenport, Iowa, next year.

He expects to make $18 an hour once he finishes and hopes that will increase to as much as $25 an hour in the years to come.

Officials at organizations that represent the construction trades say national age-specific statistics aren't available. They note U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the industry will need to add 100,000 jobs a year each year through 2012, while also filling an additional 90,000 openings annually for positions vacated by retiring baby boomers and those leaving the industry for other reasons.

Some believe the labor shortage will only become more severe as the need for skilled workers increases on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast and in regions with housing booms.

"Do we have an immediate crisis? Probably not. Will we in five years? Absolutely," says Gary Dowty, executive vice president of the Lake County Contractors Association, based in north suburban Chicago.

Already, he's seen several baby boomer trades workers take early retirement - "good retirement and pensions," he notes. "They can afford to retire at 55 or 60 and they're doing it."

Each spring, Dowty's organization sponsors a career expo for local eighth-graders, who get to build toolboxes, lay brick and use a jackhammer.

The idea is to plant seeds early, with some trades organizations hoping to capitalize on the popularity of children's TV program "Bob the Builder" and home-improvement shows, including "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and "Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls."

Some trades organizations, such as the Associated Builders and Contractors, or ABC, have partnerships with the Boy Scouts of America and Junior Achievement. They offer training programs in Spanish. Still others, including Chicago Women in Trades, send speakers to schools to get more girls interested in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Trades organizations also hope to supplant the notion that a college degree is the only path to a good career, creating an atmosphere more like that in Europe, where trades such as plumber, electrician and carpenter are often regarded as attractive professions with steady work and high stature for skilled technicians.

"We say, 'apprenticeship is the other four-year degree,'" says Bob Piper, vice president of work force development for the Arlington, Va.-based ABC, which has chapters across the country.

Iincreasingly, some jobs such as construction management do require a college degree.

"And yet nobody's saying, 'Hey, this is a good career,'" says Michael Holland, executive vice president of the American Council for Construction Education, based in San Antonio, Texas.

The northern chapter of the California Professional Association of Specialty Contractors recruited 65 high school graduates for its first internship program this past summer. Of those, 35 completed the program.

"We're not going to change this overnight. But if these kids get an honest look and hear it from each other, they can see there's an opportunity," says Brian Peters, a board member for the California group, which noticed a big change in the group of young interns who showed up for orientation "slouching in the chairs, hats on backward."

By the end-of-summer banquet, he says, "it was shiny shoes, sitting up straight, bright-eyed, realizing they'd accomplished something."

Amy Stafford, now an 18-year-old college freshman, was one of the 35 who finished an internship, hers at a plumbing company in Rocklin, Calif.

"I didn't worry about getting greasy cutting gas pipe, and I didn't worry about having to wear work boots and carrying heavy things," Stafford says. "I loved my job. I loved the people."

For now, she plans to continue her studies in criminology at Fresno State University, where she's attending on a track scholarship, but she's grown to see the trades in a new light.

"At this point in my life, if I wasn't in college, I would definitely consider going into a trade," she says.