Toss Them a Line

Indulge me for a moment. I want to pull together three strings into one, tight rope.

By Paul Deffenbaugh

Deffenbaugh Headshot 1

The first string is an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Thomas B. Edsall from March 16 called “The Increasing Significance of the Decline of Men.” In it, Edsall points out that in spite of male dominance of the economic system there are signs of problems men face in our society today. Non-college educated males have higher rates of drug use, violence and lower incomes. Overall, men are less likely to attend college than women, and they are increasingly dropping out of the workforce. This is especially true for those men who were raised in single-parent (predominantly women) households.

The result of this decline is that whole swaths of Americans are facing difficult futures that will increasingly require intervention by the government–either welfare or police or both.

The second string of twine comes from my wife, who works as a case manager for an excellent nonprofit that provides transitional housing for homeless families. In addition to the housing, Bridge Communities, Glen Ellyn, Ill., provides career counseling, nutritional education, financial mentoring and other services. The families that need its services are usually single-parent, and the children in those homes often see college as beyond their means. One of the major focuses is to ensure the head of household has a clear path to income by completing a degree or earning a certificate that can lead to secure employment. But even quality nonprofits can’t provide a quality job for people in need. It is the biggest struggle many of these families face.

So, both the head of household–which is usually a mother–and her children need job opportunities that may not result from a college education.

The third and final string is our own construction industry. The biggest issue facing our industry is a shortage of skilled labor: welders, carpenters, plumbers, HVAC technicians, etc. When I speak with contractors, many of them indicate they could take on more work if they could find the people to do it. But they can’t.

This is not a new problem, although it has grown more acute in the last couple of years. I’ve been covering the construction industry for more than a quarter century, and I have been writing articles about the shortage of skilled labor for that entire time.

Three strings: men in need of value in our society, families that need improved incomes, and an industry that needs workers. Put all three into one strong rope.

Let’s pair contractor associations and unions with programs such as those provided by Bridge Communities and Big Brothers to offer both long-term mentoring to young men at need, and provide a career path that can help them fight out of the sucking muck of poverty.

Before we go any further, let’s also make clear that these same problems and opportunities are shared by girls and women. They need a helping hand too, and the construction industry can be a solution for them. Yes, a construction site is a tough place for a woman, but that will never change unless we start getting more women on the site. With more and more emphasis placed on ease of installation for products, physical strength is less of an issue on job sites. After all, if women can be Army Rangers, they can also operate screw guns.

That said, I believe the problems Edsall identifies are real, and they are completely related to the lack of value we offer men who are not oriented toward a college degree. In short, our society doesn’t value people who work with their hands, so we don’t encourage children to pursue those opportunities.

We all know that the construction industry provides rewarding jobs in terms of both satisfaction and income. Why are they going wanting? It’s not like we’re keeping this a secret.

We’ve got to change American society’s perception of skilled labor, and the way to do that is to help people find paths out of poverty and into the middle class. The construction industry is the path, especially for people in need, and many of the people in need most right now are young men.