Kris Saunders and her fiancee, who currently get by on Kris' income as a third-year apprentice carpenter Image courtesy of Kris Saunders
Kris Saunders and her fiancee, who currently get by on Kris' income as a third-year apprentice carpenter

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law will create thousands of new construction jobs, but the industry has struggled to recruit young workers. Kris Saunders’ story highlights the benefits of the skilled trades: a debt-free path to the middle-class.

MICHIGAN—Kris Saunders takes pride in her work. 

At the end of every project, the third-year apprentice carpenter can take a step back and see what she’s built. Whether it’s an addition to a major manufacturing facility in Kalamazoo or a high school renovation in Westland, Saunders loves the feeling of finishing a project.

“There’s a really great feeling of satisfaction and self-pride in being able to see my work, being able to see what I contributed to, knowing what I did with my crew, what I physically brought into the world into existence,” Saunders told The ‘Gander. “That’s just incredibly satisfying.”

While that feeling of fulfillment is important to Saunders, so too is the fact that she’s able to provide for herself and her loved ones. Saunders is currently a full-time employee of Clark Construction, and as a member of the Carpenters Local 525, the Detroit metro area resident is guaranteed a wage of $26.37 per hour. She also has health insurance, a pension, and an annuity. 

“Right now, me and my fiancee are currently living on my income alone. Not a lot of people can do that,” Saunders said. Given the constant demand for construction and a shortage of workers, she’s had little trouble finding contractors willing to take her on. “Once you know those skills, you’re so marketable.”

For Saunders, working in construction has opened a debt-free pathway to the middle class. Because of the steady salary and good benefits, she’s now something of an evangelist for the industry, albeit an unexpected one. As a 29-year-old college-educated queer woman, she tends to stand out a little in the predominantly older and male-dominated field. The average age of construction workers is 43, and 90% of the workforce is male, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The construction industry has long struggled to recruit younger workers, people of color, and women—an issue that has only grown more dire as baby boomers retire. This pipeline problem became even more obvious during the pandemic, which saw spending on construction surge even as the industry lost employees. Over the past two years, what industry experts already knew became even more clear: Creating more jobs and recruiting young people into the field is critical to the future of Michigan’s economy and infrastructure.  

Fortunately, help is on the way. President Joe Biden on Monday signed his once-in-a-generation infrastructure bill into law, ensuring that Michigan gets sorely needed funding to upgrade the state’s roads, bridges, water pipelines, and more. The law, which is also expected to create thousands of new jobs, has been praised by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

“The bipartisan infrastructure plan is a win-win for Michigan because it will create countless good-paying, blue collar jobs, while helping us fix even more roads and bridges across the state,” Whitmer said in a statement last week. “This investment will make a huge difference in people’s lives and build on the work that we’re doing in Michigan to deliver on the kitchen-table issues.”

Should Democrats also pass Biden’s Build Back Better Act in the coming weeks, the legislative package could help solve the second part of the puzzle—recruiting more workers to alleviate the worsening labor shortage in the construction industry.

The Shortage of Construction Workers Affects All Michiganders

In the early 2000s, there were more than 200,000 construction workers in Michigan. By the height of the great recession, however, that number had plunged to 120,000. 

While the state’s construction workforce rebounded over the past decade, there were still only about 178,000 workers in the sector in March 2020. The early months of the pandemic saw major job losses in the field, but Michigan’s construction industry has recovered virtually all pandemic-era job losses. 

Yet the shortage of skilled laborers persists in Michigan and across the country. Not having enough workers can lead to slower construction timelines, imperiling infrastructure projects and imposing higher costs that can trickle down to consumers.

Less construction means less housing, which has driven up costs for homebuyers and renters in the state. It also poses something of a public danger in a state that has “old and outdated” infrastructure, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2018 infrastructure report card. Michigan earned a D+ rating from the ASCE, which cited the state’s “pothole-ridden roads, bridges propped with temporary supports, sinkholes destroying homes, and closed beaches.

“We are an aging country in terms of that infrastructure and if we’re not careful and more deliberate, we’re all going to be responsible for any one of those things that decay and wind up costing lives,” said Jimmy Greene, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan.

There are more than 1,200 bridges and over 7,300 miles of highway in poor condition in the state. Commute times have also increased by nearly 5% over the past decade, and drivers spend an average of $644 per year in car repair costs due to driving on roads that need repairs.  

The state’s infrastructure is so famously bad that it helped spur a national scandal with the Flint Water Crisis and inspired now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to focus her 2018 campaign on “fixing the damn roads.” 

She’s secured $3.5 billion in bonds to help fix the state’s bridges and roads, but more funding is needed.

Biden Delivers Billions for Michigan’s Infrastructure

Thanks to the work of Biden, Michigan’s Democratic Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and others, the Infrastructure and Jobs Act will inject a massive infusion of cash into infrastructure projects in Michigan. Over the span of five years, according to the White House, the bill will invest at least the following amounts in the state:

  • $7.3 billion for road and highway repairs
  • $1.3 billion to improve water infrastructure and guarantee clean, safe drinking water for all communities
  • $1 billion to improve public transportation 
  • $563 million for bridge replacement and repairs
  • $363 million for airport infrastructure development
  • $110 million to help expand an electric vehicle charging network
  • $100 million to expand broadband internet to another 398,000 Michiganders

The bill will help modernize Michigan’s infrastructure, improving safety and quality of life while also creating new job opportunities.

“That will go a long way to creating additional opportunities,” said Cheryl Sanford, the chief executive officer of the Workforce Development Institute (WDI), a nonprofit workforce development organization that operates the Access for All apprenticeship program. “For organizations like the Workforce Development Institute that are already in that space providing that training, it’s really an opportunity for us to continue to promote the benefits of apprenticeships.”

But providing that level of sorely needed funding doesn’t address the other major problem: the workforce. 

“The fact that we’re spending more money doesn’t necessarily entice people to come and do more work,” Greene said. “So when we say creating more jobs, if you’re not filling those jobs, guess what? You’re just creating more of a gap.”

Apprenticeship Programs and the Push to Recruit Younger Workers

The key to strengthening the construction workforce is recruiting more young workers to the trades. 

“We have to make our industry much more palatable to young people. Back in the day, when people said ‘we want to teach our kids to use their hands,’ well guess what, that’s called coding now,” Greene said. “We’ve got to encourage young people into the trades by demonstrating that these are long-lasting career jobs with really good salaries and incomes.”

According to Saunders, the carpenter, one thing that prevents younger workers—particularly women—from entering the trades is simply a lack of awareness of construction as a viable career path.

“That was the case with me,” she said. “Growing up, even though my parents tried to be really open-minded about stuff like that, I still feel like we still had the ‘these are stereotypical men jobs,’ and so it was just not something that my parents ever saw as an option for me.”

Instead, Saunders went to Michigan State University, where she graduated with a degree in animal sciences. After spending most of her twenties working as a lab technician, she decided to change careers when she was let go from her job in early 2019; she’d grown tired of working with lab animals who were “doomed for a fated end.”  

Maybe she could do construction, or carpentry, or something else with her hands, she thought at the time. Unsure of how to make that happen, Saunders turned to MichiganWorks!, the state’s leading workforce development organization.

“This person just walks up and was like ‘Have you ever considered a job in construction?’” Saunders recounted. “I was like ‘literally, that was exactly what I was thinking about trying out next, so tell me more.’”

Saunders eventually applied for and was accepted into an apprenticeship training program called Access for All, which is operated by Sanford’s Workforce Development Institute. The goal of the program is to increase awareness and provide a pathway of sorts for anyone considering a career in the building trades.

Many people don’t know they can earn money while learning on the job through an apprenticeship, Sanford explained. Our program helps individuals meet the qualifications to apply to any of the building trades apprenticeships. “It could be pipefitters, millwrights or carpenters, electricians, operators.”

Saunders participated in free training programs and classes for roughly two months and obtained the various certifications needed to complete the program in Kalamazoo. Afterward, she enrolled in a four-year carpentry apprenticeship program in Wayland. As part of the tuition-free program, participants like Saunders are hired by contractors who pay them to take classes while working on construction sites.

Saunders has learned how to work with materials like concrete and cement, and how to install metal stud framing as well as wood framing for residential construction, among other skills. “I know how to install doors, windows, ceilings, [and] ceiling grids in schools,” she added. 

While pay rates differ based on which stage of the program participants are in and which union they’re a member of, apprentices in Michigan can expect to make between $25 and $35 per hour, with benefits.

Rather than pay for four years of college and possibly take out student loans, apprentices get paid while they train and learn, a particularly attractive option for Michiganders who are making career changes like Saunders did and/or don’t want to spend money on an expensive degree. 

“There are just so many opportunities for people who want to get into different careers, who want to make that change, who want to invest in themselves and upgrade their education and look at careers that may not be as negatively impacted, god forbid, if we have another pandemic,” Sanford said. “The economy goes up and down, but construction probably is one of the occupations that suffered the least during the pandemic.”

The Construction Industry Has a Marketing Problem

Greene of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan believes the construction industry needs to improve its messaging and emphasize its diversity of career paths and room for growth.

“When you think about doctors and nurses, they all have elevated degrees in them and we don’t do that. But our industry is rich and full of those elevated statuses and we don’t talk about that,” he said. “We just say ‘carpenter.’ I mean, there’s a big difference between building a house and a university in terms of framing, just like there is [between] wiring a scoreboard at a big massive stadium … [and wiring] a home.”

Construction workers can go on to set up their own shops and become entrepreneurs—a reality that can make for a pretty compelling pitch. That pitch also needs to be broadened to appeal to women, however. 

Historically, women make up only about 10% of all construction workers—a number that has remained remarkably steady over the past 25 years.

Saunders believes the physically demanding nature of construction work gives some women pause, even though she’s seen firsthand “really tiny” girls on construction sites “kicking butt and making stuff happen.”

The industry is doing what it can to address these perception issues and recruit more diverse workers in order to expand its workforce. “That’s where programs like our Access for All apprenticeship readiness program have been really helpful because we target under-served populations that don’t typically go into the building trades, so we focus more on training females, minorities, veterans, [and] youth for apprenticeship opportunities,” Sanford said.

Those efforts have been successful. When the WDI began offering classes in 2014, there were only one to two women in each class, Sanford said. But as they targeted their efforts to recruit more and more women, the number grew exponentially.

“As women see themselves and they see other women who look like them from the city of Detroit, or from Kalamazoo, or from Battle Creek doing that work, then they start to think, ‘I could do that too,’” she said. “Our most recent class had 50% women in the class, which is almost unheard of.”

How the Biden Administration Can Help

The quest to diversify and expand the construction workforce isn’t just up to the industry. The government can play a role too, especially by increasing funding for skills and job training programs. 

“Job creation efforts are only as good as we are supporting workers to fill those jobs. Right now, workers need access to and success in skills training programs in order to transition into an infrastructure job, into a job in construction that will be created by the investments that the federal government is going to make in projects across the country,” said Katie Spiker, managing director of government affairs at the National Skills Coalition.

As part of Biden’s Build Back Better Act, Democrats could soon deliver tens of billions of dollars to boost workforce development programs. According to a framework of a deal released in October, the bill would invest nearly $30 billion in reducing college costs and investing in workforce development, “including community college workforce programs, sector-based training, and apprenticeships.”

While those funds would be spread across the US and span various industries and sectors, they would undoubtedly benefit Michigan’s construction industry. 

“There’s going to be lots of jobs for which people are going to need to go for short-term credentials,” Spiker said. “The kind of jobs that are being created under an infrastructure package—the overwhelming majority require some sort of education past high school, but not a four-year degree.”

Using federal dollars to fund such training and credential programs is critical to expanding the construction workforce, she added.

The prospect of more funding also has Sanford excited. “I’ve been in workforce development for a long time and I can’t remember a time when we’ve had so many resources available,” she said. “Even though some of it is still waiting for approval, there’s just a lot of opportunity, which is really pretty exciting.”

If the bill passes, it would do so despite opposition from all 50 Republicans in the US Senate. All 212 House Republicans, including Michigan Reps Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) and Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), are also expected to oppose the bill.

This obstruction comes even as the pandemic showcased the need to invest in workers and the construction industry as a whole. The future of Michigan’s roads, bridges, housing, and offices are contingent upon a robust, diverse, and skilled workforce—which depends in part on government funding.

The entire state would benefit from such investments, but just as importantly, so would individuals like Saunders who want to start a new career. After decades of declining union membership, stagnating wages, and the hollowing out of America’s middle class, the skilled trades provide some of the last remaining jobs with a pathway to security and stability in the US.

“When we sat down and [my fiancee] made the decision to quit her regular 9-to-5 job, a large part of why we were able to do that was because my job is a well-paying career,” Saunders said. “That goes a long way in my opinion, being able to support yourself and your family.”

If the Build Back Better Plan passes, more Michiganders could follow in Saunders’ footsteps and find jobs in the skilled trades that allow them to provide for their loved ones.