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FM Frequency: Skilled Labor—A New Recipe?

Written by Retired Columnist. Posted in Columnists, Facility Management, FM Frequency, Magazine, Professional Development, Retired Columnists, Topics


Published on February 25, 2006 with No Comments

By Jeff Crane, P.E., LEED® AP
Published in the February 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

By now, TFM readers should recognize this author as a reliably optimistic engineer seeking opportunities in problems and making lemonade from life’s numerous lemons. But engineers, habitually anchored (one might argue mired) in reason and logic, are also prone to kicking over the half full glass of nonsensical idealism.

In considering the future of the facility management profession, this column has previously declared life is good while warning naysayers about the danger of self fulfilling prophecies. That belief holds today, although I’m compelled to mention an increasingly thought provoking component of facilities management—a shrinking skilled workforce.

What gives? We know that technology and automation eliminated many farming and manufacturing jobs over the years. We’ve heard the economic arguments for moving production facilities to countries with lower taxes, labor, and environmental compliance costs. Perhaps we even recognize the competitive advantage of off shoring white collar functions (such as accounting and IT) to countries with less expensive, but highly educated, workforces. But when we consider that construction and maintenance trades are core competencies of facility management that require skilled workers throughout the U.S. every single day, why are there so few qualified carpenters, electricians, pipefitters, HVAC mechanics, and building maintenance technicians?

For a moment, let’s generalize: Most agree that members of the WWII generation sacrificed so their baby boomer children could attend college and have a wider range of opportunities. As the boomers grew up and had children of their own, Gen X-ers (like me) and the Gen-Why? or Millennial kids had an even greater expectation to attend college—even if they had no idea what to study or set no specific goals beyond graduation.

Continuing these generalizations, many schools are more concerned about political correctness and the self esteem of kids than teaching math, science, history, reading, and writing. As a result, students earning a high school diploma might feel great about themselves but may be unprepared to compete in an increasingly demanding international economy.

At a time when China, India, and other developing nations are enjoying significant economic expansion, many U.S. college graduates today might be the educational equals of high school graduates 50, or even 25, years ago. That probably explains why American parents increasingly consider a college education a necessity, perhaps even an entitlement for their children. That should be a concern for many reasons, but I’ll try to stay focused on facility management.

What is the future of tomorrow’s skilled labor force when most kids are forced to go to college and hope to become doctors, lawyers, bankers, professional athletes, and rock stars? Think I’m exaggerating? How many teenagers do you know who dream of becoming electricians, HVAC mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, or building maintenance technicians? How many parents do you know who encourage their kids to develop their curiosity and natural talents for building and fixing things? Can you imagine the holiday hype of a brand new erector set or Lincoln Logs competing with the recent X-Box 360 launch? (Fair disclosure: I’m an X-Box junkie too.)

Ask your favorite electrical or mechanical contractor about his or her turnover rates and the challenge of finding and retaining good help. At the next IFMA or BOMA meeting, find out what peers really think about the local talent pool of qualified maintenance techs.

So what’s the lemonade recipe for these industry lemons? Indeed, this is a complicated generational and cultural issue. While the military and technical schools have always offered valuable educational options for skilled workers, perhaps there are additional things that can be done.

  • K-12 schools must elevate standards so a high school diploma once again confirms literacy and a world-class education in math, history, philosophy, and science.
  • Parents should encourage kids to work with their hands in addition to their brains.
  • Families shouldn’t force all kids to college when huge percentages have no idea why they’re enrolled and will never earn a degree.
  • High schools should acknowledge the vocational vacuum and work with local industry and trade schools to develop strong technical course options.
  • Trade unions and professional groups should reach out to schools and offer apprenticeship programs, career counseling, and job shadowing.
  • Facility managers should engage high school and college students as interns where they could manage small projects, learn efficient and safe maintenance practices, and work as helpers with skilled trade workers.

It may sound like an uphill journey, but we shouldn’t worry. Market forces reliably balance supply, demand, and the cost/value proposition. Once skilled trade workers who speak fluent English become so rare that their earning powers rival doctors, lawyers, pro athletes, and rock stars, technical schools will swell with aspiring students recognizing the value of rewarding, honest work that pays well and can’t be shipped overseas.

Crane is a mechanical engineer and regional property manager with Childress Klein Properties, a leading real estate developer and property management services provider in the Southeast.


About Retired Columnist

This expert formerly served as regular contributor to Today’s Facility Manager magazine. His vast knowledge of the facility management profession continues to provide a rich resource for facility managers by way of this online archive.

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