A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Houston Chronicle Business Columnist Argues for Better Pay and More Respect for Craft Workers

The Business Columnist at the Houston Chronicle over the weekend forcefully made the argument that tackling the skilled worker shortage along the Gulf Coast will take a lot of work.

"There is plenty of blame to go around for the skilled labor shortage," wrote Chris Tomlinson. "Replacing the retiring workforce will take an all-of-the-above approach, with pre-K through 12th-grade programs graduating career-ready students, community colleges teaching the latest skills, and employers investing in training or agreeing to hire union labor."

Tomlinson drilled down on why there's a shortage of skilled workers in the first place. Among others, he spoke with J.D. Slaughter, vice president at S&B Engineers and Constructors:

Employers cut pay and benefits and drove out labor unions in the 1980s and 1990s, making blue-collar careers less attractive. A first class pipe fitter earned $13.50 an hour in 1979, saw that pay drop and then settle at the same wage in 1990. But the purchasing power of $13.50 in 1990 was equal to only $6.50 in 1979 dollars, Slaughter said

"By 2000, the first class pipe fitter was making $16.50 … but in earning power it was still $6.50," he added. "Today, that pipe fitter can make $32 an hour, and because of demand, they are earning a per diem. But that's maybe $11 or $12 an hour in 1979 dollars."

Slaughter points out that $32 an hour is still a good wage, and his company is recruiting and sponsoring training programs to help people earn it.

Labor unions, though, say they have plenty of skilled laborers, but that many contractors refuse to work with them. High-profile scandals, extensive overreach and union-busting by conservative politicians damaged the labor movement's reputation.

"There's still that stigma about the union," said Domingo Barron, an organizer with Insulators and Allied Workers Local 22. "But we're not the unions of the past. We train our people, we want our people to do a good job, and that's what's going to keep us in those plants."

Tomlinson also rightly laments the fact that many parents have discouraged their kids from even considering jobs in the trades and there has been perhaps too much emphasis on four-year degrees for everyone.

You can check out his entire column here.