For years, you have been hearing about the shortage of available workers in the roofing industry and trying to figure out how to best address the issue. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted there will be a significant skilled labor shortage by 2030 as a result of 77 million Baby Boomers retiring from the workforce.
In NRCA’s surveys regarding COVID-19 conducted in April and May, lack of available workers was the No. 3 concern when respondents were asked to “rank the most significant challenges to the future growth of your business.” (The No. 1 challenge reported was “economic uncertainty,” and No. 2 was “decline in customer confidence and spending,” both directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic).
As the roofing industry faces this unprecedented skilled labor shortage, one way the industry can help address the issue is by reaching out to schools to show students of all ages there are lucrative and satisfying career paths in the roofing industry.
Reaching out to schools
Although the BLS raised concerns that a shortage of skilled tradespeople was looming, high schools have favored preparing students for college. During the 1990s, high schools largely eliminated shop classes and other hands-on programs and pushed academic achievement to the forefront.
During the Great Recession, the labor shortage was magnified. The economy crashed, the housing market shattered and the trades lost half their workforces, creating a gaping hole. The trade industries not only lost people but they also lost experience.
Tim Stephens, service department manager for Ben Hill Roofing & Siding Co. Inc., Douglasville, Ga., has partnered with the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia to connect with local high schools to introduce roofing into the curricula and build relationships with students who have the most potential to succeed in the roofing industry. Stephens is building mockups to match NRCA ProCertification® specifications and plans to train new graduates using NRCA’s Training for Roof Application Careers program.
“From the TRAC modules, we were able to create checklists with 30-, 60- and 90-day learning targets,” Stephens says.
TRAC is a blend of online and hands-on training roofing companies can use to provide new and inexperienced field workers with information and skills to help them become quality roof system installers who thrive in their careers. TRAC also offers low- and steep-slope modules that provide instruction regarding safety, rooftop access, roof system tear-off and more.
Nick Sabino, NRCA’s immediate former chairman of the board and president of Deer Park Roofing Inc., Cincinnati, says TRAC not only helps captivate students but also helps retain new employees by providing a career path.
“If after 90 days the new hire completes TRAC, he or she automatically gets a pay raise,” Sabino says. “This is a big retention goal. After completing TRAC, he or she will work with our NRCA Qualified Trainer for the next year and a half. After two years, the employee can test to become NRCA ProCertified.®”
NRCA Qualified Trainers are those who have successfully completed an NRCA Qualified Trainer Conference and know how to conduct engaging training sessions designed to help installers learn about roof systems and their installations. NRCA Qualified Trainers help train, engage, coach and make a difference in their companies.
“And once an employee becomes ProCertified, his or her next goal often is to learn leadership skills and become an effective foreman,” Sabino explains. “Once a foreman, the employee is given a company vehicle and other company perks as well as increased compensation. This could happen in three years, five years or longer, but having a path to follow is important.”
School counselors, teachers, students and parents also need to learn more about the roofing industry. Many high school counselors remain unaware of the benefits the roofing industry offers and cannot provide assistance to students looking for a career path whether through a four-year degree or on-the-job training in the trades. In fact, Sabino says some counselors consider roofing a good career option for their special needs students. He emphasizes the roofing industry must change such mindsets.
“As we work to raise the level of awareness, we will lose that type of stereotypical thinking,” Sabino says.
Awareness starts in elementary school as students learn a broad range of careers and connect education to achieving those careers.
“When children are exposed to professions at a young age, they are much more likely to go into that profession—hence the reason so many kids say they want to be firefighters or ballerinas,” says Karen L. Cates, Ph.D., a professor of management at Monmouth University, Monmouth, Ill., and adjunct faculty member at Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
As students move to middle school, counselors emphasize college and career planning and administer interest assessments. Often, teachers invite parents to talk to the class about how they use skills such as math, science or grammar in their jobs. These are great, free opportunities for roofing professionals to reach the next generation of roofing workers.
Whenever possible, Sherri Miles, vice president of J.D. Miles & Sons Inc., Chesapeake, Va., speaks to middle school students and explains how roofing is a good fit for those with specialized talents.
At the high school level, counselors have refined the process to steer teenagers toward college, but when faced with a student who wants to go into a trade, guidance counselors often are stumped.
“When a student comes to my office and says he or she is interested in a trade but not sure which one, I don’t have a guide to help them,” says Laura Wilkens, career coordinator at Maine South High School, Park Ridge, Ill.
Wilkens works in tandem with the school’s career and college admissions specialist to guide students through career interests and opportunities and exploring those interests through internships, job shadowing, career treks and paid job experiences.
“We need something like the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery but one geared toward various trades,” Wilkens asserts.
The Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery is a timed multiaptitude test given at more than 14,000 schools and military entrance processing stations nationwide. It is developed and maintained by the Department of Defense to determine qualification for enlistment in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Wilkens says high school counselors also need, at a minimum, reference materials that outline the characteristics of a successful roofing professional, including examples of defined career paths and average salaries and benefits at various career levels in the roofing industry.
Miles accomplishes this by bringing along playing cards when she speaks to students. The cards represent 24 types of roofing jobs. The front of a card has a photo of a worker in the field and a job title. The back of the card gives the average salary of each trade craftsman (customized by state), a brief job description, education options and qualifications.
Kristin Cavey, school counseling department chair at Winters Mill High School, Westminster, Md., says she knows little about roofing even though she and her colleagues work with their local community college that has an accredited apprenticeship program.
“To get the roofing industry on a counselor’s radar, we need to understand the skills, training and local contacts required to guide our students into that trade,” Cavey says. “Otherwise, we would push them toward general construction because that’s what we know.”
When schools resume in-person classes and events after the COVID-19 pandemic, Cavey suggests roofing professionals set up meetings with their local high schools to first educate counselors and teachers about the roofing profession. From there, roofing professionals should look for opportunities to speak to students at events such as back-to-school night, where local businesses set up tables in a school gymnasium for students to inquire and learn about careers in their community.
Miles has been proactive in raising awareness about roofing in her community and coordinates career events in the various communities her company serves.
“We arrange a career night for each city in our geographical area and explain roofing and possible career paths,” Miles says.
Virginia has a job-readiness mandate for graduation. According to the Virginia Department of Education, though there is no specific career-related activity a student must experience—such as an internship or job-shadowing assignment—to earn a diploma, school districts must provide opportunities for students to learn about workplace expectations and career options in their communities and elsewhere.
“To satisfy this graduation requirement, we set up service learning projects to take students through the entire construction process,” Miles explains. “Once they experience construction and roofing firsthand, they have a better understanding of whether a career in roofing is right for them.”
Through career nights and similar events either online or in person, local roofing contractors can demonstrate to counselors, students and parents there is substantial unmet demand for qualified roofing workers with salaries and benefits that match the skills and need. Most importantly, local roofing contractors can help dispel stereotypical myths.
When reaching out to students interested in a trade, students often ask why they should pursue roofing instead of other trades such as general construction, HVAC, etc. A simple answer is having a roof over your head is one of life’s basic needs.
“When I’m talking to students, I’ll mention the TV show ‘Naked and Afraid’ because the first thing participants do on the survival show is build a roof for shelter,” Stephens says. “Roofing professionals are providing one of the most fundamental needs out there. I let students know there is a stable career available in roofing.”
Stephens also explains learning the roofing trade won’t require years of paying off student loans.
“I tell them that if they are willing to work hard and stick with it, they can be successful with no college debt,” Stephens says.
In 2019, there were 45 million borrowers who collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt in the U.S., according to Forbes. Student loan debt now is the second-highest consumer debt category—behind only mortgage debt.
Among the class of 2019, 69% of college students took out student loans, and they graduated with an average debt of $29,900, including private and federal debt. Meanwhile, 14% of their parents took out an average of $37,200 in federal parent PLUS loans, according to Student Loan Hero™ Inc., Austin, Texas, a student loan management company.
About 40% of students at a four-year college drop out before completing their bachelor’s degrees, leaving them with substantial debt and no degree, according to U.S. News & World Report. And of those 60% who finish their degrees, 64% take longer than four years to graduate.
“I explain to students that if they are hands-on learners, the training to become a roofing professional is a relatively inexpensive alternative education that may work well for them,” Stephens says.
Also worth noting is the COVID-19 pandemic’s cratering effect on the economy could make finding a job more difficult for college graduates. According to St. Louis Post-Dispatch, before the pandemic it took college graduates three to six months to secure employment after graduating. But for the class of 2020, finding a job could take even longer. According to the Journal of Labor Economics, U.S. college students who graduated during a recession earned 10% less the first year after they completed their studies than would otherwise be expected, and the negative effects lasted during the next seven years. This makes the roofing trade an attractive industry for those seeking lucrative employment.
When talking to students about careers in the roofing industry, it’s important to be upfront regarding what is expected of workers.
J.J. Smithey, president of Frost Roofing Inc., Wapakoneta, Ohio, says the roofing industry not only needs to attract more students interested in roofing but it also needs to identify individuals who will be a good fit.
“Students who tend to make the best roofing workers like the outdoors,” Smithey says. “They are hunters and fishermen and can sit in a tree stand all day. That’s the kind of people we want. They like the sun in summer and don’t mind the cold winters.”
The industry also needs workers who are employable. High school graduates are not expected to have roofing skills right out of school, but they are expected to have a proficiency in skills such as communication, critical thinking, leadership, teamwork and work ethic.
Lauren Cuchna, college and career pathway specialist at Technology Center of DuPage, Addison, Ill., says these soft skills are universal employable traits.
“We train our students to be punctual,” Cuchna says. “We teach our students to take direction and be independent workers. We also prepare them in customer service.”
Cuchna knows what it takes to be a roofing professional. Students must be diligent, meticulous, good problem-solvers and willing to take risks.
“They also need to be prepared to work hard through difficult days,” Smithey says. “I’m upfront about working outside in hot, cold and wet weather and I set the expectation early in conversations.”
Smithey tells students that new employees can move up quickly, but they have to want it and work for it.
“I tell them that if they do their jobs well, they will do well,” he says. “We are all going to have days that don’t go as planned, but we work through it as professionals.”
Many paths, one goal
The road to a successful roofing career is not the same for all students. In June 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to increase funding for vocational training and create more apprenticeships.
Trade schools, or vocational schools, offer skilled training from six weeks up to two years. The streamlined hands-on training focuses on learning a skillset rather than general education. Although most continuing technical education schools offer construction training not specifically focused on roofing, students get an idea of what skills are needed to be a successful roofing professional.
According to College Board, the average cost of trade school education is $33,000 compared with four-year college tuition that averages $127,000. Trade school graduates can enter the job field sooner than their bachelor’s degree-seeking counterparts, earning income two years sooner. Depending on a student’s life goals and interests, a trade school program may save thousands in debt.
Trade unions offer high school graduates paid on-the-job training specifically in roofing. Local unions attend job fairs and have established personal relationships with vocational school and guidance counselors. They look for opportunities to reach students in classrooms and meet them face-to-face. Unions also are connecting with prospective roofing workers through social media such as Snapchat and Instagram.
“We are using digital advertising in the southern states,” says Jordan Ritenour, director of marketing for the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers. “It is a huge success in Puerto Rico. We simply advertise: ‘We pay well for hard work.’”
Free college credit also is an incentive for students who become apprentices with a local roofing union.
“The union is affiliated with local community colleges where you learn as you work and you get paid as you work,” Ritenour says. “Think of an apprenticeship like an internship and mentorship in one. Aside from college credits, pensions and health insurance also are great recruiting tools.”
We don’t need a culture that believes the only way to be successful is to earn a four-year college degree and tumble into debt. A collective perceptual change must start at the local level. To recruit workers for the future, we need to build relationships with students now. When there is significant involvement locally, it will have a wide-ranging effect nationally.
High school counselors, teachers, students and parents need to be reminded of the benefits and importance of trade careers and the educational paths to get there. Make plans now to get involved in your school community so you’re ready when social distancing guidelines allow you to do so.
NRCA launches workforce recruitment webpage
The webpage contains tools and resources designed to help roofing contractors recruit, engage, onboard and train entry-level and transitioning employees to the roofing industry. The webpage showcases the opportunities to work, earn, learn and advance in the roofing industry; skilled training and certification opportunities; safety and technological advances; earnings potential; and the multifaceted career opportunities available across all sectors of the industry.
Employers also can access descriptions and links to other organizations NRCA works with to advance the roofing industry’s workforce, including the Association for Career & Technical Education;® Department of Veterans Affairs; National Center for Construction Education and Research; and SkillsUSA.®
For more information
For an article related to this topic, see “Training a new generation.”