The sounds of high-pitched drills fill the welding department of Guilford Technical Community College on a recent morning. Sparks fly and sweat drips from the faces of students as they work to fuse metal pieces together for a class project.
Some students like Sophomore Gwyneth Waite are close to graduation. That’s a good thing because across the country, and in North Carolina, there’s a shortage of skilled workers in the construction industry.
It took a while for Waite to decide on a career path. First, Waite wanted to be a meteorologist, then a nurse, then a hairdresser. But a cousin convinced Waite to try something completely different.
“He needed a new welder, someone he could rely on and it was a great field and just so many things started pushing us in that direction,” Waite said. “We just figured 'Give it a shot' and it turned out to be something I adore doing.”
Earlier Exposure to Construction Industry Is Key, Some Educators Say
Even though GTCC’s welding program places 100 percent of its students in jobs after graduation, it’s still not enough to close the gap that exists between North Carolina’s current construction boom and lack of skilled workers.
GTCC manufacturing department chairman Don Ellington wants to help solve that problem. He said it’s better for students to know about careers in the construction industry early in their life.
“They're not exposed to them at a young age,” he said. “When a lot of testing sort of became the norm for school instead of shop class, music class, they stopped learning how to do things, how to make things and started learning how to learn tests.”
Ellington said society, parents and schools place a stronger emphasis on traditional four-year college degrees than shorter, more practical technical degrees.
Construction Firms In NC Struggle To Fill Positions
The Associated General Contractors of America conducted a survey earlier this year of construction firms across the nation. The survey showed that nationally, 75 percent of respondents said they were expanding their headcount.
However, in North Carolina the numbers are much higher.
According to Carolinas AGC, 78 percent of firms reported they're having a hard time filling salaried positions. For skilled trade positions, 93 percent said they were struggling.
North Carolina is one of the states with the biggest need for skilled labor workers, according to Carolinas AGC Director of NC Government Relations and Building Division Betsy Bailey.
Bailey said there are a few reasons why the state is in such need. She cites the state’s growing population and low unemployment rate as a couple of them. Bailey also said that the construction workforce has an image problem because people still think of the industry as dirty and with low-paying jobs, but that’s not the case anymore.
“Those jobs are where you start, and then in particular with the demand being so great, if you're working hard and you're learning some skills, you're going to move up,” she said.
Discipline, Practice Needed to Succeed
Colombiana Hi-Tech is one of the companies looking for workers. It's a nuclear metal fabrication plant based in Greensboro and Kernersville. The company makes dry-shielded canisters that store nuclear waste. In total, it has 100 employees.
Director of Sales Chris White said because they are such a niche market, it can be hard to find qualified workers.
“It's a very specialized product with a lot of specifications and that's one of the challenges that we have in finding qualified workforce to make this type of product,” he said.
GTCC professor Don Ellington said students need to have patience as well as a strong work ethic to enter into the construction industry and succeed in it.
“It's the discipline required for practice, time in and time out, that gets you good at something and then it starts to become fun,” he said. “Until you're good at it, it's kind of like not fun and that's the hard part.”
GTCC student Gwyneth Waite is willing to go through that hard work because of the job security a career in welding provides.
“However tough you think it is, it's that tough if not more, but you get used to it,” Waite said. “It takes adjustment but you get used to it and it becomes more fulfilling.”