FM Frequency: Skilled Labor—A New Recipe?

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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.

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.

 

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