The national labor shortage crisis is on full display in New York City. As construction in the city continues to boom, the labor pool continues to shrink.
According to a New York Building Congress report of U.S. census data, the number of workers in construction across all five boroughs decreased by 1% in 2016, the same year that construction spending hit an all-time high. In another survey, nearly 80% of businesses reported difficulty in finding qualified skilled labor.
As experts predict construction spending in 2018 and 2019 to return to 2016 levels, and the need for 28% more construction workers in New York state by 2024, costs could go up as developers compete for a diminished labor pool. Some construction companies are starting to dole out one-time bonuses and other incentives to recruit skilled employees.
Across the country, a variety of organizations and programs are working to funnel more young people toward careers in the trades. Good wages and secure employment opportunities are there. But there’s still work to be done to counter the long-standing expectation that high school grads go off to a four-year college and then sit at a desk their whole careers.
One of those programs in New York City is Bridge to Crafts Careers, a pre-apprentice initiative from the World Monuments Fund and the International Masonry Institute. In 2015, it started with a pilot 10-week program for underserved young people to learn and execute masonry preservation and restoration techniques at The Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The idea later grew to include a similar program at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Both cemeteries are National Historic Landmarks, the top designation of any historic site.
“They wanted a way for skilled craftspeople to be trained in masonry restoration so that the construction industry would have an applicant pool of trained individuals ready to work on the thousands of historic structures in need of restoration,” said Neela Wickremesinghe, manager of restoration and preservation at Green-Wood Cemetery.
“What I found was that they were able to see things click that they had already learned, and they were able to apply. They were thrilled to be able to show me the projects they had been working on.”
Preservation Specialist for PROSOCO
Here's how it works
Program staff from all organizations recruit young people, aged 18-24, from community centers, churches, trade schools, etc., to apply for the paid, 10-week, masonry apprenticeship.
Interested individuals attend an orientation, take a TABE test on reading and math, and have a one-on-one interview with cemetery staff. For this year’s apprenticeship at Green-Wood, more than 100 applicants competed for 10 spots.
The program kicks off with classroom lessons about masonry identification, stains and soiling, said Sarah Holder, preservation specialist for PROSOCO, who helped train this year’s apprentices.
Then the education goes outside, to the cemeteries’ thousands of headstones, mausoleums and obelisks in need of restoration.
It was in this environment where Holder saw the young people thrive.
“What I found was that they were able to see things click that they had already learned, and they were able to apply,” Holder said. “They were thrilled to be able to show me the projects they had been working on.”
For the trainees, the program offers more than learning how to clean masonry.
“Cleaning is just one component,” said Holder. “These trainees get to learn about masonry restoration and consolidation treatments, but they’re also learning about repointing, stone patching, dutchmen repairs, stone pinning and other practical lessons as they enter into the masonry training program.”
The cemeteries have also partnered with local social services agencies to provide the trainees with educational sessions on financial literacy, communication in the workplace, resume writing and other life skills.
This initiative produces a rare triple-win. In the short-term, the cemeteries’ stone monuments benefit from the restoration efforts. In the long-term, the trainees benefit from an introduction into a secure, well-paying industry and network, and the industry benefits from the additional entrants to the labor market.
A cemetery is an ideal environment to set up the trainees for a career in masonry restoration, according to Holder.
“It gives the trainees a unique opportunity to work with actual historic material on a smaller scale, and they’re seeing the same kinds of stains and soiling that they would on a bigger building,” she said.
Many participants go on to put that training to use in related fields at the end of the program.
“All our young people have had job interviews,” said Susan Olsen, director of historical services at The Woodlawn Cemetery. “We see 100% employment offers if they want to work.”
That’s a major step up from alternative career paths that existed for these young people before they learned about Bridge to Crafts Careers.
“This 18- to 24-year-old group that’s not college-bound are traditionally working in food service, hospitality or retail,” Olsen said. “Those fields offer low wages and no hope for advancement or increased salary. They’re finding that the trades are great opportunities for them as far as living in a New York City community and being able to afford housing.”
And masonry restoration is a growing field – it’s seen a 14% increase in opportunity, Olsen said.
“We have trained Americans to think that the ideal job is to sit in front of a computer all day,” she said. “Back when I was a kid, you had vo-tech schools, you had home economics and shop and people had opportunities to be auto repair people and plumbers, and we stopped that. We became a computer-type world where it’s desirable to sit at your desk. Because of that, the pool of people to go into the trades has declined, but the demand has increased with our failing infrastructure. So, if you connect a person to the trades, it’s beneficial to them and it’s beneficial to the industry.”
In a video about The Woodlawn Cemetery’s preservation training program, former trainees testified to the ways the program helped them develop their careers.
Miguel Acevedo says the preservation training program provided the foundation for what he does today. He joined a local union within a year of graduating from the program and currently works in construction.
“Without the Woodlawn preservation program, I think I would be unhappy working at a retail job and barely making ends meet,” said Melanie Ayala, a 2015 graduate of the program and employee for Integrated Conservation Contracting. She also counts the fact that the workshop is paid as a big benefit.
“It’s really hands-on, so you really learn everything,” Ayala added. “You’ll have the confidence to work in the field because they trained you the right way.”