Irwin Tools Launches Awareness Campaign for Tradesman Shortage

Andrew Klips  |

In 2011, privately held Irwin Tools initiated National Tradesmen Day to acknowledge the contributions of trade professionals.  On Monday, the tool manufacturer and distributor said it is ratcheting up its efforts to 1) say “thanks” to professional tradesmen and 2) create a “wake-up call” about the shortage of tradesmen that the U.S. faces.  Irwin has household brands in the skilled trade business, such as Vice-Grip®, Quick-Grip® and Straight-Line®, to name just a few, in its portfolio of products.

Skilled trades workers include welders, plumbers, electricians, HVAC workers, carpenters, machinists, etc. that are comprise large portions of the construction and manufacturing industries.

With unemployment still high and hundreds of thousands of people filing for jobless benefits each week, a lack of tradesmen may seem a bit counterintuitive, but the fact remains that the trend has been years in the making.  In December 2007, the Peterson Institute for International Economics said, “America is no longer a skill-abundant country compared with an increasing share of the rest of the world. As a result, in the coming decade, America could face broad and substantial skill shortages.”

Irwin believes that manual labor has been devalued in the U.S.; a stigma that keeps young Americans from wanted to pursue a career in skilled trades.  Dovetailing with fewer young workers joining the skilled trades industry to accelerate the problem is the aging population of tradesmen today.  According to CareerBuilder company Economic Modeling Specialists Intl., 53 percent of skilled trade workers in the U.S. were older than 45 in 2012, with almost 19 percent between 55 and 64 years of age.

This isn’t tough math.  Fewer in than out equals a shortage of workers.  According to Irwin, “only one skilled worker is entering the workforce for every three who are retiring or leaving these professions.”

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It certainly seems that skilled trades aren’t looked upon with the great admiration that they once were.  Perhaps it’s parents and educators driving the importance of getting a conventional college education into the heads of kids in recent decades.  Maybe kids today have a different view of manual labor than generations before.  Some may think that unions loosing a bit of their bargaining rights played a role, as numbers at skilled trade-type union memberships edged modestly lower from 2011 to 2012, according to the Labor Department.   Unions have long had a stronghold on wages and employment, keeping members in the workforce and commanding a strong salary.  Younger workers aren’t looking to unions as they once did, with the lowest union membership rate by age occurring amongst people aged 16 to 24, at only 4.2 percent in 2012. 

Maybe it’s men in general leaving the workforce.  Men represent the lion’s share of skilled trades workers and men's participation rates in the overall labor markets declined from almost 98 percent in 1956 to a post-war low of 88.4-percent at the end of 2012 (for men between 25 and 54 years old).

Of course, it’s a combination of things, rather than one specific reason, but the fact remains that the U.S. needs now or, at least it’s fair to say, is going to need more tradesmen in the future. 

To focus on just one sector, homebuilders are feeling the crunch of dwindled numbers of skilled workers with homebuilding picking back up since its collapse six years ago sent millions to the unemployment line.  The markets aren’t hearing majors like Toll Brothers Inc. (TOL) or PulteGroup ($PHM) claiming lack of workers (at least not yet), but plenty of smaller builders have expressed their difficulty in finding skilled labor.  As reported by USA Today, 33-percent of the members of the Home Builders Association of Michigan said in May that they were having trouble finding enough skilled trades to meet demand…and that state has an unemployment rate over 8 percent.  CNN Money reported that 46-percent of the members of the National Association of Home Builders said they were falling behind on jobs in March because they couldn’t find enough workers.

While homebuilding is certainly picking back up compared to recent years, the pace is still far below peaks in 2006.  In July, housing starts rose 5.9 percent from June to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 846,000.  By comparison, at peaks during 2006, housing starts were at an annual rate of 2.3 million.

Manufacturing isn’t exactly humming along like it was before the Great Recession.  Automakers are seeing things finally get back in gear after a multi-year lull.  As the U.S. and the world continue to recover, it’s certainly imaginable that the issue with a shortage of skilled tradesmen is going to become more pronounced in the United States.

Certainly Irwin has motivation because more skilled trades workers means more sales, but the company’s campaign is putting some light on what could become a far greater concern.  The four-week campaign is now underway with more than 2,400 airtimes slated to run across popular networks like ESPN, NBC Sports, Discovery, FX, The Weather Channel and more.

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