Unemployment is at a low and while this sounds like great news, it has created issues that are mostly impacting the construction industry. According to the Associated Builders and Contractors, we need approximately 500,000 new construction workers right now. The problem is expected to grow and another 600,000 workers will be needed if the $1 trillion in infrastructure work for building and improvement goes through. All this has costs.

Labor costs are estimated to rise 4 to 5 percent annually as the shortage continues to grow. This is already being felt as many contractors currently report hardships bidding work, due to the unanswered question of where will the workers come from?

There are certain trades in construction more impacted by this shortage than other trades. Trades that require skill sets and training will suffer the most. Then, we have the most impacted trades of all—those that require the added artistic component of hands-on training. Most of these skilled trades are not conducive to just online or virtual training. These trades require a physical presence with repetition undeliverable by a computer. Repetition is needed to establish muscle memory. Similar to learning to ride a bicycle, you can read about it or watch it online but that does not mean you will be able to do it.

Using a hawk and trowel is very similar. It is also similar that once learned, it is in you for life. Yet, many training or certification experts fail to grasp this concept. I know from experience, as I have grown very tired of explaining hands-on to bureaucratic accreditation firms. They are convinced they can train and certify these workers online. They explain they have done this with electricians, plumbers and carpenters, so why not plastering? It isn’t any different. While plastering is unique, it is not alone. Installing poured-in-place terrazzo flooring is similar and suffering the similar uphill battle with these groups. 

The Future of Plastering

I utilized examples by reading books and watching videos online, which included electrical, plumbing and carpentry work. I then did that work on my home. I was pretty slow but I passed city inspections. But that just can’t be done with plastering. How do you know, they ask? Well, we think it can, yet they have failed to prove it and I know why.

While this is bad news for the future of plastering, the news just seems to get worse. When you add the fact that this work is physically hard and dirty, it makes it pretty unappealing to most millennials. And we old-timers do not help the situation either. We fight amongst ourselves far more than other trades. To the casual on-looker, every plasterer must be dismal except for the one who is talking. I have even witnessed a fist fight over who was a better float man. Why would a young person want to join our club?

Plastering and terrazzo have strong upsides we tend to overlook. It takes time for a tradesperson to have that trowel feel like a natural extension of your arm and it only comes from doing it over and over. Meaning you will get better and more valuable as time goes on. Once learned, you can create finishes that are awe inspiring and leave many speechless. You will out-produce those young plasterers who have not mastered taking plaster from the front and not the back of the hawk. It is a subtle difference but increases efficiency and is ergonomically friendly. I know of an 80-year-old plasterer who will still go out and work for fun on the ground level and he out-produces the 30 year olds. It is a sight to watch these young people in a state of awe.

Leaving Your Mark

Another point too often overlooked is reviewing at the end of the day to see what you created. As you grow older, you will travel around and see the work you did decades earlier. This type of work has your and only your unique signature. It does not get buried or covered up; this has a special satisfaction only another artistic craftsperson can fully appreciate.

We need to work to change public perception of the construction worker in general and plastering in particular. Old timers must do away with phrases like, “You don’t get paid to think” or “Your reward is your paycheck.” These are not helpful in the recruiting of young talent. Please do not take the trades to the grave with you.

We need to respect the art of the craft and even celebrate it. Newer companies are instituting in-house programs to honor our craft workers. At a recent training event, a group decided to have companies submit their workers that exemplified a positive work ethic and the commitment to the art of the craft. While we believe millennials must change, maybe we should do a little changing ourselves?