When we were young, we built entire cities and neighborhoods from Legos and Lincoln Logs. In those moments of pure innovation, nothing was as impressive as what we could build by hand on the living room floor. But along the way, something changed. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we were taught that enrolling in the right college, choosing a safe major and landing the perfect internship are the stepping stones on the one and only path to success. To pursue any other avenue, including the commonly referred to “middle skill” careers in the construction industry, would evoke great skepticism and concern from those around us. So most of us swapped our blocks for books and ventured down the cubicle-lined path. Fortunately, the construction industry is proof that not all of us have to.
As industry professionals, we know the value of a career in construction, and while it is easy to brush aside the subpar “middle” labeling, what we often pay little attention to is the effect this portrayal has on our industry’s growth and image. We forget that the mediocre words used to describe our industry carry over into the way parents explain construction to their children and finds its way into conversation amongst peers as the classic fall back alternative in case college doesn’t work out.
What this innocently-misguided term fails to represent, is the multiple training levels, certifications and credentials that outline the grit and determination on a craft professional’s resume. For example, we know that in a single workday, a pipefitter will calculate as many, if not more, mathematical equations to ensure the accuracy of every fit and angle, than an engineer. But most times, we don’t stop to think about all of that. Instead, we see just another grocery store, road, power plant or apartment complex built by just another group of men and women.
In an iconic speech given by J. Doug Pruitt, Chairman of the Board for Sundt Construction at SkillsUSA in 2016, listeners were challenged to think about their lives and where they would be without the contributions of the construction industry. Pruitt painted a picture of waking up each morning and turning on a light switch that received electricity from a power plant that was built and maintained by construction craft professionals; he talked about turning on the faucet for a morning shower that receives water from a plant that was built and maintained by another thoroughly-trained group of craft professionals. He continued to describe morning commutes and the intricate roadways, mile-spanning bridges and expertly weaved interstates that create an incredibly more accurate job description of our craft professionals than any middle skill label.
When we stop to think about it, all of these structures define the course and functionality of our day. Without the knowledge, hard work and skill of each and every craft professional, our lives would inevitably look and run quite differently. In an interview, Pruitt continued to say, “These people are professionals. They are brilliant, but they don’t have four-year degrees.” With society’s current, misconstrued model of career success, the future workforce does not view construction as a worthy path to pursue after graduation. It’s time we change that.
In 2011, NCCER made a conscious commitment to utilize the term “craft professionals” to truly speak to the contributions of our workforce and since then, we have seen its adoption across the country. If one organization has the power to spark a change, imagine what our entire industry could do. It’s time we share our confidence in the crafts with society and let the language we use reflect our unwavering and passionate commitment. The first, long overdue step in the right direction is to toss the middle skills label.