But the past four years have shaken the notion that piling on degrees is still a sure-fire road to success. And with unemployment still painfully high, Georgia is about to start mapping an alternate route.
Cutting against the grain, the state is putting together a program aimed at encouraging more young people to pass on college and head instead for technical training.
The Georgia program is to be unveiled by Gov. Nathan Deal on Jan. 17. While details remain shrouded, the campaign is apparently modeled on Go Build Alabama – that state’s attempt to encourage young people to consider jobs in the construction industry.
A similar program in Georgia would likely combine a pro-construction marketing campaign with attempts to connect young people with the state’s many technical colleges.
Government officials declined to offer specifics about the program. But the idea has some support in Georgia industry, as well as among some experts.
“I don’t know anything about the specifics of Georgia’s program, but as a model, it looks really good,” said Evelyn Ganzglas, director of workforce development at the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy group for lower-income people. “Education and training are not single events. You help people move in steps along pathways.”
Yet on the surface, the program seems pitched at exactly the wrong problem: After all, the jobless rate is 9.9 percent in Georgia, more than a point above the national average. And among construction workers, unemployment is far worse.
Why nudge more young people into a pool that already swamps the number of openings? Proponents say there are several reasons:
• Because today’s job seekers do not always match the jobs.
Having a flood of applicants does not mean that a construction company can fill an opening with someone they really need. And it was industry concern about shortages that initiated Go Build Alabama, said Tim Alford, executive director.
“We have an excess of labor, but we don’t have an excess of skilled labor,” he said.
In Georgia too, some skills in some places are in short supply, said Scott Shelar, executive director of the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia.
“I don’t want to overplay it, to say that there are thousands of jobs, but there are pockets across the state,” he said.
For example, Pace Drywall needs workers who can hang drywall, do light gauge metal framing and install acoustical ceilings.
“When we put out ads, it takes weeks to find someone who is decent,” said Kelly Whitley, marketing director for the Canton-based company. “We have trouble finding people who are qualified and have experience.”
She blames it partly on the “stigma” of work that causes you to get dirty and partly on the culture’s glorification of college. “Not a lot of people want to get into hanging sheetrock,” she said.
• Because these are not bad jobs.
Traditionally, manufacturing jobs were often the best way for people without college educations to climb into the middle class. During most of the past several decades, however, manufacturing took a pounding – jobs were eliminated both by technology and shifts of factories to cheap-labor locales overseas.
When it comes to compensation, construction jobs run the gamut. But when skills are in demand – and in short supply – pay tends to rise.
A trainee in hanging drywall should make $12 or $13 an hour, Whitley said, while someone who has five or more years of experience should bring home $25-plus an hour.
“It is hard work, but it’s satisfying,” she said. “At the end, you can see something you made.”
Moreover, it is a lot harder to outsource the hanging of drywall in Atlanta to a worker overseas, she said. “You have to be here to do it.”
• Because construction will bounce back. Someday. Eventually.
The industry has lost a stunning 2 million jobs since 2008 – one-fifth of all the jobs lost, even though the industry represented only about 4.5 percent of all jobs.
The building of single-family homes, of course, was nearly wiped out – along with millions of jobs – after the collapse of the housing bubble. But some apartment buildings are being built, as are other kinds of facilities.
Construction spending in November hit its highest level since June of 2010, according to a recent report from the Associated General Contractors.
“Even in a place like Atlanta, which is still seeing considerable job losses in some sectors, they are still building things – like health care facilities and power facilities,” said Brian Turmail, spokesman for the national trade group.
“When the demand for construction picks back up – and we hope it’s when, not if – there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that the biggest problem will be a lack of skilled workers.
“When it happens, it is going to happen almost overnight,” Turmail said. “You are going to go from high unemployment to a shortage of workers very, very quickly.”
• Because there will be work that needs doing.
“The workforce is aging, yes,” said Mike Dunham, executive vice president in Georgia for the Associated General Contractors. “The other thing that is aging in this country is our infrastructure. The pipes, the roads, the bridges.”
Moreover, if voters pass a referendum this summer on a regional sales tax to fund transportation projects, that will mean construction work, he said. “If someone goes through construction programs or the job training, then job opportunities will be there.”
Yet those jobs do not yet exist. And some critics say it’s a mistake to lure young people into what is, right now, a depressed industry.
“In general, construction has not been growing, even as much as an average private business,” said analyst Libby Bierman at Sageworks. “It’s probably not the best place for the state to put its money, at least until the demand picks up on the consumer side.”
North Carolina-based Sageworks, a financial information company, collects data from accountants and banks. So far, there’s no evidence of a resurgence in construction, she said.
By contrast, sales in the home health care sector have grown an average of 15 percent a year for the past four years, according to Sageworks data.
“As the population ages, you’ll only see more need for health care services,” Bierman said. “The state should prepare people for the job market they are actually going to face.”
But it’s not only growth that creates job openings.
Economic expansion may be weak, but when more than 70 million baby boomers retire, they are going to leave an awful lot of vacant spaces in the economy. One-third of the nation’s construction workforce is 50 or older – and many of them were born close to the front end of the baby boom, which started in 1946.
That means that each year for the next decade, construction will need 95,000 workers to replace those who are exiting jobs, according to the Construction Labor Research Council.
Workers on the verge of retirement outnumber workers coming into the industry by a ratio of nearly 4 to 1, said Alford of Go Build Alabama.
That is why Alabama’s program started with marketing: trying to get the attention of high school and junior high students, as well as their parents and guidance counselors, he said.
The program is paid for with fees from employers based on wages. Alabama hoped to raise $1.75 million annually, but thanks to a weak economy, it could raise only $1.5 million the first year.
Go Build Alabama used the money to run ads and recruit young people at career fairs, hoping to direct them to a website devoted to construction information.
About 4,600 young people registered on the site. Alford said he will consider it a success if one-quarter of the registrants end up in construction jobs.
Whitley of Pace Drywall said she can’t wait for Georgia to follow suit with its own effort.
“There is too large a push to send kids to college,” she said. “But – let’s face it – not everybody should go to college.”