Young people don't want construction jobs and that's a problem

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG TV9)- Job and census figures show fewer young workers appear interested in construction work. And that’s causing a labor shortage for home builders nationwide.

Jake Nietfeldt just finished his junior year at Durant High School. He's interested in a career in construction but he says not that many other students share his interest. Nietfeldt is one of a number of students taking place in a student-built home project in Iowa City.

One construction industry website, BuildZoom, found the share of construction workers under age 25 fell by 30 percent from 2005 to 2016. And that’s adding to the overall shortage of building trades workers.

The financial market collapse ten years ago is one possible explanation. That led to a significant downturn in construction a couple of years later and the youngest workers in the industry were the first ones laid off.

Now that the home building industry has revived and needs more workers, those younger workers appear reluctant to step back in.

Some contractors are looking for ways to reverse that trend.

In Iowa City, several students at the Greater Iowa City Area Home Builders student-built housing project are combining earning and learning.

McCreedy Ruth Construction is the homebuilder overseeing work on the student home.

Tim Ruth says he’s put several of the students on the construction company payroll. They go to a Kirkwood Community College construction program three days a week and work construction two days.

He hopes the students stick with his company once they complete their technical training.

And the reason he’s willing to offer construction jobs to those in high school, or some students who just graduated, is the need for more workers.

Ruth says it’s a need that limits how many new homes some contractors can build.

“I was talking to a builder from Sioux Falls, South Dakota last week. He was telling me he could do twice as much work as he’s doing. He’s just not getting the labor,” Ruth said.

Ruth not only sees the problem on a local level he’s also on a committee of the National Homebuilders Association working on nationwide programs to get more younger workers interested in construction careers.

He says he likes to visit high schools and explain to students how going into the building trades can lead to good-paying careers without the need to take on student debt.

Lia Weiner, one of the recent graduates Ruth hired, says some high schoolers hear that message. Others don’t.

“A lot of the kids are just not interested in building. More are interested in becoming a doctor,” she said.

Tim Rouse, a Durant High School industrial tech teacher working on the student-built home in Iowa City, says sometimes families will try to steer kids away from careers that don’t involve going to college.

“Parents think their kids have to go to college. So if you take that age, from 18 to 22, they’re in college so that’s why there aren’t a lot of kids that age involved in the trades program,” he said.

The median age of a construction worker nationwide is slightly more than 42. That means half are younger and half older.

That’s up two years in the last decade and yet another sign of an aging workforce in construction and the need for more younger workers.