Regionally, it’s expected that there will be a shortage of more than 4,100 skilled construction workers between 2018 and 2023.

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You don’t have to look far to see one of the biggest job-growth areas in our region, just check out the nearest construction project. In fact, there are so many major building projects going on in this growing city that there’s a projected shortage of qualified, skilled workers to fill the jobs, and that’s only expected to grow as more planned projects get underway.

“The public agencies have all done construction labor forecasting and there’s a widening gap between demand and supply of skilled trade workers,” says Samantha Kealoha, labor equity program manager for business development at King County. “The cranes you see all over the city speak volumes to what’s going on here. There’s just so much work and it’s only going to continue to grow.”

Regionally, it’s expected that there will be a shortage of more than 4,100 skilled construction workers between 2018 and 2023. However, King County, along with other public agencies, are looking at the upcoming labor shortage as a major opportunity to spread the wealth of well-paying, stable jobs to parts of the community that may be being left out of our region’s economic boom otherwise.

“Traditionally, the construction and building trades are not the most diverse industries,” says Kealoha. The numbers back her up: regionally, women make up just 6 percent of the construction industry and people of color make up about 30 percent.

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This issue is a pipeline one: for many skilled trade jobs in the construction industry, the way in is through formal apprenticeship programs that take anywhere from one to five years to complete. When it comes to communities not traditionally represented in the industry, there are fewer women and people of color entering the pipeline in the first place, and even when they do get in, fewer complete their apprenticeship programs compared to their white male counterparts.

To address this inequality, King County is moving forward to propose an ordinance called Priority Hire which prioritizes the employment of individuals working in the most economically distressed ZIP codes in our area. This is similar to the City of Seattle’s Priority Hire program enacted in 2015.   “As the public sector, this is a huge opportunity to do outreach and recruitment at community events and high schools to tell them about this demand and the opportunities it represents for them. We’re going into the community and working with community based organizations so that people can see what’s out there for them,” Kealoha says.

The Port of Seattle, with major capital projects of its own going on, primarily at the airport, is also partnering with programs in the community to address the pipeline issue. “Even just looking at public agencies alone you have Sound Transit expansion, our major airport expansion and other city and county projects, giving us such a huge opportunity to strengthen that workforce pipeline and include more diversity in the labor force,” says Marie Kurose, the workforce development manager at the Port of Seattle.

The Port has been funding community-based outreach and referral contracts to help raise awareness about apprenticeship and construction opportunities and even help community members prepare for access to pre-apprenticeship or apprenticeship programs. According to Kurose, The Port is also considering a Priority Hire program similar to King County’s.

“Because while there’s been huge growth and prosperity in our region, the income inequality is expanding and many in our community are not benefiting from this economic growth. We want to target those communities that have less opportunity and try to create more access for them to actually benefit from this growth, too,” says Kurose. “As public agencies we have the charge to look at our projects and make these investments with public funds in ways that benefit our whole community and build a strong workforce that actually reflects our community.”

The Port also emphasizes the importance of apprenticeships as a key area for increasing access to the fruits of this region’s building boom. “The apprenticeship system allows people to earn while they learn, so it really provides opportunity for people with limited experience in the trade,” says Kurose.

Kurose notes that the Port is trying to address existing barriers to ensure more diversity and inclusion in the trades. “We’re looking at supporting more pre-apprenticeship programs that help people get ready for being successful in their trade, as well as mentorship programs that could help with retention. Because for those who make it through — they find a rewarding industry with living-wage salaries.”

At least one other public entity is taking a look at preparing the next generation of workers: schools.

“Seattle Public Schools is aligning around the idea of how to prepare our students for their futures and how we are providing opportunities, skills and relationships for whatever pathways they choose,” says Rick Burke, School Board Director for Seattle Public Schools. “We’re trying to be really deliberate by identifying high-demand local and regional careers that pay well. Then we trace those pathways back to what preparation is necessary and build that into our K-12 system.”

One way local public school districts prepare students for these opportunities are through the network of regional Skills Centers across Washington state that offer advanced career and technical education, specialized facilities and equipment. The Puget Sound Skills Center serves junior high and high school students in South King County and Seattle Public Schools Skills Center, serving students within the Seattle region.

SPS provides different ways for students to access and explore career pathways by providing Career and Technical Education courses in middle and high school as well as advanced coursework through its skills center. The Seattle Skills Center, in particular, is focused on getting students exposed to career pathways right away, whether that leads to college, certificate programs or pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs.

Principal of SPS’ Skills Center Dan Golosman says it’s all about opening up the opportunity early to find careers a student is interested in so they know exactly how to make it happen.

Burke also agrees about the value of career exposure. “When we allow our young adults to test the water early on through exploratory classes and work-site experiences, they can find their passion that much sooner. This naturally benefits both students and organizations providing secondary education and career preparation programs. Apprenticeship and internship programs want people who are really enthusiastic and motivated.”

Golosman emphasizes that when schools work not only for students and families but with their community and local businesses in mind, the rising tide will lift all boats. “I know of more than one former student who has shared how the technical education and career training they received from a skills center prepared them for a career that pulled their whole family out of generational poverty: that’s a win-win for everyone.”

The Port of Seattle owns and operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, cargo and cruise terminals, Fishermen’s Terminal, public marinas, parks and real estate assets on behalf of the people of King County.