By Jon Marcus, The Washington Post, March 5, 2021

Even as the twin blows of a pandemic and a recession have slowed down the construction industry, B & I Contractors in Fort Myers, Fla., isn’t short of work.

It is, however, short of workers.

The company, which specializes in commercial buildings, offers enviable benefits — employee stock ownership, in-house training, paid time off, sick days, a 401(k), health insurance that includes dental and vision and, in some cases, a $1,000 signing bonus.

Yet it regularly lists around 50 jobs to fill, including for plumbers, electricians, welders, computer-aided design experts and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning technicians.

“There are not enough of those skilled tradespeople available,” B & I’s president, Gary Griffin, said. “It’s a big concern for us. And it’s going to get worse because of the way these numbers are going.”

Griffin is talking about the steep decline in enrollment at community colleges, which help train many of the people he is looking for, along with a huge share of other workers now in high demand across the country.

The number of students in community colleges in the fall declined by more than half a million, or 10 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Of those now enrolled, a fifth say they are likely to delay their graduation because of the coronavirus, a Strada Education Network and Gallup survey found.

That’s a big problem for employers who need to fill jobs made even more essential by the pandemic, and in fields where there are already shortages. These include health care, cybersecurity, information technology, construction, manufacturing, transportation, law enforcement and utilities.

“Not having people engaged in community and technical colleges means we’re taking the fuel out of the engine,” said Stephen Pruitt, president of the 16-state Southern Regional Education Board, or SREB.

The news of that big drop in community college enrollment is eliciting sympathy for students and prospective students who have delayed or slowed down their educations or dropped out. But the potential impact on the national economy of a decline in the supply of graduates with badly needed skills has been largely overlooked.

“The average person out there doesn’t quite make that connection,” said Jan Yoshiwara, executive director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Employers do, however.

“Even as you see millions of people stuck on the sidelines or having to step down to lower-paying jobs, you’re seeing skills gaps,” said Matt Sigelman, chief executive of the labor market analytics firm Burning Glass.

“There’s a perhaps even more pernicious impact,” Sigelman said: “In a 21st-century knowledge economy, jobs follow talent much more than they follow labor costs. So if it turns out there’s a critical talent pool that there’s just not enough of, that can drive a company, and ultimately a whole sector, to look at new locations where there’s a more robust supply.”

Talent shortages, including among workers traditionally supplied by community colleges, are also raising costs to consumers and causing business delays.

“Where this is going to become most evident is in areas like construction, where you see increases in construction costs because of a labor shortage, and in health care, where the average person is going to begin to feel it,” said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

Even if enrollment eventually rebounds, the interruption caused by the pandemic will be felt for years — coinciding with a hoped-for economic recovery — since that’s how long it usually takes students to complete credentials once they start them.

“Our capacity is down, our enrollments are down, and therefore a year or two years from now our production of those skilled credentials is going to be worse,” said Yoshiwara. Meanwhile, “if anything, the need for skilled workers like the kinds of people who attend community and technical colleges is actually going to be going up.”

This predicament is being made worse by a wave of retirements, which research shows is speeding up. Even before the pandemic, the staffing company Adecco estimated that as many as 31 million jobs would be left open by retiring baby boomers.

“We’ve got more people retiring out than we have young people coming in,” said Greg Sizemore, vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development at the industry organization Associated Builders and Contractors.

While 10 million Americans remain out of work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 6.6 million open jobs — a shortfall only expected to grow as a recovery begins. The number of openings increased during the pandemic in such fields as utilities, manufacturing, transportation and professional and business services.

“We’re looking at a workforce shortage that’s as large as anything we’ve ever seen,” said Sizemore. And “we are as an industry very dependent upon the community college system” to fill that gap.

So are many others.

As demand grows for nurses, for example — one study conducted before the pandemic by researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and elsewhere projected a shortage of 510,394 registered nurses nationwide by 2030 — employers have increasingly turned to graduates of community colleges to fill the gap, rather than exclusively requiring four-year bachelor’s degrees, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

The number of job postings in other health-care fields that also require associate degrees rose by 20 percent since the start of the pandemic, Burning Glass found.

But the ranks of nursing students and students in related health-care programs in community colleges declined in the fall, the Clearinghouse reports.

In an era of hacks and security breaches, the United States is producing only 48 cybersecurity experts — about a fifth of whom are trained at community colleges — for every 100 jobs it needs to fill, the labor analytics firm Emsi estimates.

In construction, 54 percent of companies report having difficulty finding qualified workers, according to the industry group Associated General Contractors of America. About the same proportion expect that will remain just as hard or even harder in the future.

The shortage incudes engineers, estimators and others often trained at community colleges — “the people who wear khakis,” said Brian Turmail, the organization’s vice president for public affairs and strategic initiatives — and employers reported even before the pandemic that it was driving up construction costs and delaying projects.

“Our industry was suffering what was becoming a true crisis in terms of lack of workforce,” said Chris Peck, Dallas-based senior vice president of the general contractor JE Dunn Construction.

Yet the number of students at community colleges pursuing credentials in engineering technology declined by 15 percent in the fall compared to the fall of 2019; in construction trades by 11 percent; and in engineering by 9 percent, the Clearinghouse says.

“As soon as the immediate dust settled on the first wave of the pandemic, we went back to our community college partners and asked, ‘How worried are you?’ And at the time they were very worried,” Turmail said.

Automation typically speeds up in the wake of recessions, and the SREB estimates that the pandemic recession is accelerating automation; where it previously predicted that 30 percent of current jobs could be automated by 2030, the SREB has moved that up to 2025.

This requires workers to learn new skills, something else community colleges traditionally provide. It also creates a huge need for people to build and run the technology. Yet the number of community college students in communications technology and support programs is down by 16 percent and in information technology by 4 percent, according to the Clearinghouse.

Manufacturing is already increasingly high-tech, and even now the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports nearly half a million unfilled jobs in the industry; two-thirds of manufacturers list filling those jobs as their primary business challenge. The number of students in community colleges learning precision production, however, dropped by 18 percent in the fall, the Clearinghouse says.

“We cannot survive without a lot of professions that I’m not sure people thought of the same way before the pandemic,” said Morna Foy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System.

The number of community college students working toward becoming mechanics and repair technicians was down 16 percent in the fall; the number studying transportation and materials moving, 11 percent; and the number of students in homeland security, law enforcement and firefighting programs, 15 percent.

A few states are actively acknowledging the importance of their community colleges in turning out needed workers.

Virginia in the fall announced the Re-Employing Virginians initiative, allocating $27 million to community colleges to train people for the 2.6 million jobs projected by 2026 in the state that will require some training, but less than a four-year bachelor’s degree.

The governor of Nevada in January called for focusing community colleges there more closely on workforce training programs, proposing a new government agency to run them.

Michigan in February launched Michigan Reconnect, providing $30 million to help people get associate degrees or certificates at their local community colleges in high-demand fields such as manufacturing, construction, information technology and health care.

But there will be an interruption in the pipeline, even in the best of circumstances, said Griffin, the general contractor in Florida.

“It is a very big concern for the future,” he said of the people who have been disappearing from community colleges. “And it’s not going to really even play out until the point at which those people would have been finishing school and getting into the workplace.”