Summer is the peak of the construction season, and many trade groups are feeling the impact of a shortage in apprentices.
The number of construction workers in Idaho has outpaced many expectations. In 2012, the Idaho Department of Labor predicted that the construction field would grow to more than 41,000 jobs over the next decade. The state passed that number in 2018 and had the fifth-highest rate of construction growth of any state that year.
Despite the growing number of workers, many specialties within the industry have struggled to find enough workers for jobs in eastern Idaho and are beginning the push for new apprentices to come in and begin working towards their license.
James Smith, the training director for the Eastern Idaho Electrical Joint Apprentice and Training Committee, said that his group and many of the other apprenticeship specialties in the region were struggling to keep up with the demand of construction projects.
“If we’re having a problem filling jobs now, how are we supposed to get 300 people for a new project at Idaho National Laboratory?” Smith asked.
Apprentice workers alternate between spending weeks at job sites and taking classes in their specialized field. Earning a license takes anywhere between two and five years, depending on which of the 250 programs across the state the worker is taking part in, but apprentice workers are able to be paid the entire time they’re earning a license.
Idaho Workers Opportunity Network director Ethan Secrist said the biggest difference between earning a license through a registered apprenticeship program and a trade school like College of Eastern Idaho is the cost. Workers in an apprenticeship earn a salary immediately after starting and pay almost nothing for training.
“We want people to know that (an apprenticeship) is not just an alternative to education, they’re a solid career option to get into a better trade,” Secrist said.
Smith had done his apprenticeship through the Eastern Idaho Electrical program, the training program for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 449, starting in 2004. The program is currently training 89 apprentice electricians, including 17 who were already working on sites but won’t take classes at the school until September.
Smith estimated the committee would need to add another 200 apprentices over the next five years, which is below the level of expected demand for other trades in the region. Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 648 is looking to bring in 200 workers over the next two years, and Secrist said the shortage for heavy machine operating engineers was especially high.
“We cannot fill those roles pretty much anywhere in the state,” Secrist said.
Construction jobs in Idaho go to out-of-state companies when there’s a local labor shortage, as Smith saw firsthand when he was working on the wind turbines outside Idaho Falls. Some Idaho workers have been siphoned off to neighboring states with higher pay or emergency projects that need to be done quickly, such as repairing power lines after the wildfires in California.
The Worker’s Opportunity Network is applying for a grant to hold regional career fairs across the state to attract more women and young workers into the field. Secrist said the network is also working with the Department of Corrections to help felons find jobs and apprenticeships after their time is served.