Donald Fry: Reinforcing trade skills in Maryland as a career option

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By: Donald C. Fry 

Maryland’s construction industry, the business sector hardest hit by the recession, is continuing to feel recession’s effects even as a long-awaited business rebound begins.

The challenge, say those in the industry, is no longer just about job loss. It’s about workforce – maintaining one with enough workers skilled in a broad range of construction trades that will be needed to meet growing demand generated by development projects anticipated in the Baltimore region and state.

Maryland lost more than 54,000 construction jobs between 2007 and 2011 – a 28 percent reduction in construction industry employment, according to U.S. Department of Labor data. Since 2011, construction jobs in the state have gradually begun returning, increasing 8 percent during the last three years. But many construction workers who lost their jobs during the recession have not returned to the industry, having moved on to other professions or having left the state, say construction company executives.

Meanwhile in the Baltimore region major public and private development projects exceeding $20 billion in combined investment loom on the horizon in the next decade, according to data gathered by the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Locally, the need to generate more trades education in the Baltimore region was one of the top issues identified by more than 60 business leaders at the GBC’s Chesapeake Conference of CEOs on June 12.

Most CEOs at the second annual day-long conference, convened by the GBC to discuss issues related to business climate and competitiveness, agreed that strengthening connections between education institutions and business for job-skills development – particularly in construction trades – should be a high priority.

It’s critical that a skilled construction workforce be in place to accommodate an impressive surge of planned development in Greater Baltimore.  More than 20 major projects – mostly private, but some public – are poised for development in Baltimore City and in the region’s counties. Together, these projects and others represent the potential for a transformative post-recession impact on our region and the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.

Major private-sector-driven projects currently envisioned or under way in the Baltimore region include a 345,000 square-foot Amazon warehouse, Harbor Point’s 1.6 million square feet of office space and 914,000 square-feet of residential space, a $2.8 billion downtown redevelopment in Columbia and significant mixed use projects in Owings Mills and Towson.

Planned private-sector projects also include Under Armour’s proposed expansion at Locust Point, a significant volume of residential and hotel complexes in Baltimore’s downtown, and more than 1.5 million square feet of new warehouse space in Harford County, just to name a few projects.

Planned public-sector-driven projects include the $2.6 billion east-west Red Line light rail system from Woodlawn to Bayview, more than a billion dollars in public school renovation and construction in Baltimore City, the potential construction of a new arena and expanded convention center in Baltimore City, a planned $1.5 billion in office space, housing and retail development at State Center, and the Inner Harbor 2.0 master plan to revitalize Baltimore’s downtown waterfront.

These are just examples, but they serve to illustrate the substantial percolating demand for a workforce skilled in construction-related trades. Major contractors are already voicing concern to me about recruiting enough skilled electricians and plumbers.

Kevin Litten recently reported in the Baltimore Business Journal that area contractors are facing shortages of electrical and mechanical workers as well as skilled HVAC trades people.

The growing demand for skilled construction trade workers is contrasted by a nearly 20 percent drop during the last five years in the number of students who enrolled in construction-related programs, Robert M. Aydukovic, executive director of the Maryland Center for Construction Education and Innovation, told the BBJ.

A wide-array of well-paid trades related to construction stretches beyond electricians, HVAC and plumbing occupations. The Maryland Department of Licensing and Regulation lists more than 50 registered trade occupations directly related to the construction industry, ranging from bricklayers to construction equipment mechanics – all of which are eligible to use registered apprenticeship programs to meet training demands.

Training and apprenticeships for numerous trade occupations are currently conducted primarily through industry contractor associations and trade unions. Community colleges also offer course work in a variety of trades.

Among other things, business leaders at the GBC’s Chesapeake Conference called for expanding apprenticeship programs and launching a campaign to interest young people in a variety of well-paying trade occupations, most of which do not require a four-year college degree.

The shortage of workers in skilled trade occupations is not just a problem in Maryland. It’s a national issue.

We face a national shortage of skilled workers, says correspondent Michael Kenig in, the Engineering News-Record. “We have heard the reasons, an aging workforce, letting 30 percent of our people go during the recent downturn, a weak immigration policy, bad industry image and students unaware of construction career opportunities,” he writes. “The time to focus on solutions is now.”

Over the last 50 years, our country’s education model has moved away from career preparation “almost exclusively into college prep,” writes Kenig. “In our zeal to push students toward college we still pay some attention to those who may not be predisposed to a four-year college experience, but not enough.”

That message needs to be reinforced in the Baltimore region and in Maryland and supported by stronger trade education opportunities for young people.

The growing challenge of addressing the need to cultivate trade skills is clearly on the radar of our region’s private-sector leaders.  The workforce that will power Maryland’s economy forward needs to have a healthy balance of well-developed skills in trades as well as in academics.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.      

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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.