Workforce training may seem like a straightforward solution to the labor shortage problem. However, something as simple as access to transportation can thwart the best of intentions. Lowe’s Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the leading hardware, building trades and home goods retailer Lowe's, just launched a new initiative that takes on workforce training with focus on community connections, and it could make all the difference.
The need for a new approach to workforce training
A number of broad factors have combined to raise concerns about labor shortages in the U.S. economy overall. The lingering impacts of the 2008 Great Recession are still evident, as well as more recent developments including the COVID-19 pandemic, the baby boomer retirement wave, a stall-out in the training pipeline and a migration bottleneck. The Joe Biden administration’s signature legislation, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, is also creating new jobs and adding to the pressure to fill those jobs.
The situation is especially concerning in the building and construction trades, where demand has soared without a matching rise in the availability of skilled labor. In particular, the trades have lagged in attracting the next generation of young workers, who may find it difficult to invest their time and resources in a training program when facing inflation, the high cost of housing and other economic factors.
An estimated 25 percent of the construction workforce is expected to retire by 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “We will lose the most skilled and knowledgeable workers, while just 10 percent of the workforce is younger than 25,” said Janice Dupré, Lowe’s Foundation chair and EVP of human resources for Lowe's.
Though not all parts of the U.S. are equally impacted, 85 percent of contractors already report difficulty in recruiting skilled workers, and an estimated 546,000 new skilled tradespeople will be needed over the coming year to meet the demand for labor.
Innovating for the workforce of the future
To help narrow the labor gap, earlier this month the Lowe’s Foundation announced the new $50 million Lowe’s Foundation Gable Grants program, which provides two-year grants for workforce training programs with the goal of channeling 50,000 people into skilled building trades over the next five years.
The word “skilled” is operational here. Dupré notes that employment in the construction trades has soared overall since 2011, but primarily in low-skilled positions. For example, the number of carpenters actually declined by 4 percent since 2011, while the total construction workforce increased by 30 percent.
As one essential key to success, Lowe's will not start the program from scratch. Instead, it will enlist existing community and technical colleges as well as community nonprofits to develop innovative new programs.
Making community connections
Non-traditional education resources have already emerged as important alternative pathways for underserved students to advance their career goals. That dovetails with Lowe’s goal of increasing diversity in the skilled trades.
“Community and technical colleges are uniquely qualified to provide the skills and education needed to fill the skilled trades workforce pipeline, because many of them have innovative programs we can support that will train and certify skilled tradespeople for jobs in two years or less,” Dupré explained. “These schools understand the needs of the communities they serve, and they have the programs and facilities to recruit and train potential skilled tradespeople."
The Gable Grant program is designed to help these schools raise the profile of careers in skilled trades, while expanding their enrollment capacity. The program will first focus on five high-demand occupations: carpenters, electricians, plumbers, small appliance repair technicians, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) mechanics.
By providing them with grants, the Lowe's Foundation aims to enable community colleges and trade schools to develop long-term, sustainable recruitment programs in those fields. Lowe’s also plans to monitor the programs, the industry and its grant partners to spot additional opportunities.
The community college connection
The community college field alone could provide Lowe’s with a steady stream of trainees. The American Association of Community Colleges currently represents more than 10 million students enrolled in associates degree programs, an amount almost equal to the number of students attending four-year schools.
“These institutions are deeply ingrained in their communities and well-placed to drive an increased interest in skilled trades training,” said the Association's president and CEO, Walter G. Bumphus.
They also provide students with a well-rounded education beyond the trades that could lead to more fulfilling career opportunities. “Many of these programs also include classes on entrepreneurship, which we know is often a part of the path of skilled trades workers,” Dupré told us. “We’re really trying to give people access to robust education and training opportunities that can set them up for jobs wherever they may live or move, and put them on the path toward a successful, rewarding career.”
Bringing diversity to the table
The grant application cycle for community and technical colleges opened on March 2 and ends on April 10. An information session will be held on March 22 for those interested in applying. Later this year, Lowe’s will fill out the program by launching a separate application cycle for community-based nonprofits.
The inclusion of nonprofits could help fill gaps in workforce training opportunities for rural populations, as well as women, minorities, and people enrolled in second-chance and diversion programs.
“Lowe’s has a significant commitment to diversity across our business, and we’re committed to opening doors for more people from all backgrounds and experiences," Dupré said. "The skilled trades can benefit greatly from efforts to bring more people from underrepresented groups into these programs."
Dupré notes that training for a skilled trade is particularly important for people in rural areas, those in second-chance and diversion programs, and others who struggle to find well-paying employment. “These can be life-changing opportunities," she said.
Next steps for Lowe’s
Regardless of the challenges, the numbers indicate there is an ample opportunity to build more diversity into the skilled trades. For example, approximately 90 percent of carpenters and plumbers still identify as white, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. Only 5 percent of the total construction workforce is Black or African-American, compared to almost 14 percent of the U.S. population.
Women fare no better. Though women make up approximately half the population, only 11 percent of construction jobs overall are filled by women. Only 2 percent of electricians and 1 percent of plumbers are women.
The Gable Grants program could help change that, with a possible assist from state programs funded by the Inflation Reduction Act. In particular, the energy-efficiency provisions include funding for workforce training programs. “It will be up to states to determine how to develop and implement these programs, but we will monitor to assess how these efforts may complement our initiative and the work being done by community and technical colleges,” Dupré said.
Image credit: Nassorn/Adobe Stock
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.