Alabama's Skilled Labor Shortage -- Mike Rowe of 'Dirty Jobs' Leads the Campaign

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Alabama is home to the Crimson Tide college football team and the birthplace of American heroes including Hank Aaron and Coretta Scott King. Now, a new campaign, "Go Build Alabama," is looking to create more American heroes through recruitment for trade jobs in areas like construction, carpentry, and welding.

Joining forces with Alabama is a familiar face: Mike Rowe, executive producer and host of 'Dirty Jobs' on the Discovery Channel. Rowe has been trying to boost the image of skilled workers for two years on his website, MikeRoweWORKS.com.


The economy won't matter

Academics and experts argue about the economy bouncing back, but Rowe is confident the need is there.

"I'm not an economist. But there doesn't seem to be any disagreement on the rate of which skilled workers are retiring," says Rowe. "Long term, I'm comfortable saying construction can't stop. Farming can't stop."

According to the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute (ACRI), the organization behind "Go Build Alabama," for every person who becomes a trade worker, three or four are retiring. The root of the problem is public relations.

"We found there are so many misconceptions about these jobs. We found 'they're all minimum wage, seasonal, no career ladder, or are dangerous' and nothing could be further from the truth," says Tim Alford, ACRI Executive Director. "These jobs we're talking about pay higher salaries than four-year-degree people make, and have even better benefits. We've got to get that word out."

Beginning Labor Day, the "Go Build Alabama" public relations blitz begins, with Rowe headlining public service announcements and newspaper inserts. ACRI is targeting career changers, displaced workers, and even eighth-graders who have yet to decide their futures. State government helped expedite the program and funding comes from a fee on wages paid to certain construction workers.

First Alabama, then... Alaska?

Alabama is the first state to aggressively recruit trade workers in this way. Rowe hopes other states will jump on the bandwagon and he's ready to help spread the message.

"The likely states you would think would pick up an initiative like this, they haven't. Alabama got it done," says Rowe. "Where are you New York, where are you Illinois? Every state is going to need to do something in this space."

Alford says that Florida has already shown interest in establishing a similar program.


But are there ever 'guaranteed' jobs?

Students often bear the cost of trade school. However, if programs are given through community colleges, Pell Grants can help defray costs. The Construction Education Foundation offers scholarships and some programs offer on-the-job paid training. "Go Build Alabama" doesn't look to replace college degrees; it hopes to highlight an alternative if that path isn't ideal for a person. But like college no longer offers the guarantee of a job, Rowe reminds potential workers, the notion of "guaranteed jobs" in skilled trades is a myth. Rather, the value of the education comes with the skill learned.

"'Buy real estate and learn a skill' was the sum total of the advice my dad gave me growing up," Rowe says. "We're not making any more land, and if you have a skill you'll always have it. We have to remind people it's truly valuable. Most people don't see their jobs through that lens."

But since skilled laborers are retiring at an alarming rate, jobs will come. ACRI is developing a sophisticated forecasting system to specifically predict what kind of jobs will be available in Alabama. Unlike teachers or lawyers who may decide to stick around a few more years, trade workers doing more physical work can't often put off retirement.

"The reality is at some critical points in our lives we all have to make career choices," Alford says. "Some apprenticeships take four years to make full certifications. If the economy isn't back by then, then we're all in trouble."


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