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Unintended Consequences: Housing Costs and Skilled Labor

I vividly remember shop class. The smell of sawdust, the coldness of the steel tools, and the inherent danger intoxicated adolescent me. Most alluring: the sense of accomplishment I felt finishing my first cutting board, stool, and picture frame. Today, I take pride in fixing a door, installing a dishwasher, or building a community theater set.

Long ago, I stopped taking classes requiring machines beyond a computer. I like millions of my generation, was pushed to attend a 4-year college and get a white-collar job. Within years of graduation, shop classes were phased out at my high school. Attendance at vocational schools, which educate mechanics, carpenters, and welders, experienced a decline throughout the 90’s and 00’s. Fewer and fewer young people entered the pipeline building the skills that build our country. Our culture no longer valued these occupations as we once did.

Though vocational schools experienced a minor “resurgence” in recent years, the Pandemic further reduced the usual number of students entering “hands on” fields. From the Fall of 2019 to the Fall of 2020, community colleges lost 10% of their annual enrollment, or roughly 540,000 students.

Today, the consequences of less people entering precision production fields are dire. The shrinking pool of skilled labor means two things: first, the cost of that scarce labor has skyrocketed, and second, it’s increasingly difficult to find skilled trades-people, period.

The Missing Middle Housing Fund obsesses about the cost and time to develop housing. The shortage of framers, excavators, roofers, plumbers, and electricians means higher building costs, longer development timelines, and fewer homes.

Great programs exist that encourage more women, minorities, and younger people to enter the building trades – but few people are signing up. MMHF advisor Larry Wigger, University of Missouri-Kansas City supply chain management professor, says the cultural trend of valuing white-collar jobs and four-year degrees has excluded these critical careers. “Here in the US we are also facing the results of decades of eschewing good, honest blue-collar labor, in favor of 4-year college degrees. We have idolized education for our children to the point of stigmatizing critical trade labor, which has greatly contributed to our current crisis.”

Over the next couple of weeks, we will explore the connection between labor and the high costs to develop housing. A cultural shift of the magnitude required to fix this problem will take time. We must start now.

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