Is a Construction Degree Worthwhile?
The construction industry promises positive job prospects and potentially high wages for those with the right education
Looking to work in construction? There’s good news and bad news.
The good news: jobs are aplenty.
There were nearly 340,000 open construction jobs across the nation in September 2019, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. What’s more, over the next decade, jobs for construction and the mechanical trades are expected to grow faster than the economy overall.
The bad news—which, in an odd way—is also the reason for the good news: no one wants them.
Working in construction is currently a hard sell, driven in part by the stigma that earnings potential and career advancement in the industry isn’t lucrative. And with a large portion of construction workers nearing retirement, the labor shortage is only likely to worsen.
This outlook has left construction companies concerned about finding skilled labor to fill those roles—meaning it may be a great time to get into the construction business, given that the labor shortage should push companies to offer increased wages to candidates with the right education.
But what’s the best educational path for those looking to start?
Traditional vs. trade
The best job prospects in the industry are for construction managers—those who plan and supervise construction projects. And those with more education tend to earn a better salary.
Managers with at least an associate’s degree had a median salary of $93,370 in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Students are taking notice. In 2017, enrollment in construction trade programs at colleges in the United States jumped by more than a quarter—the largest percent increase of all four-year programs.
A degree in construction engineering technology, with coursework covering everything from basic science and building systems to the business side of the industry, is by and large considered the best path toward a high-paying job.
The need—and rising wage prospects—for construction workers comes at a time when the cost of getting a traditional, four-year degree is at the forefront of a national debate. Tuition at four-year universities has increased roughly eight times faster than wages over the same period of time going back to 1989, according to Forbes.
As a result, there’s been a resurgence in interest in trade and technical schools, which provide comprehensive training programs for specific industry jobs in anywhere from nine weeks to two years.
Bucking university trends, however, enrollment at tech and trade schools is up—and the job prospects for those who choose trades schools are bright.
According to a report from the National Center for Construction Education and Research, 3-in-10 open jobs in the U.S. require a bachelor’s or master’s degree, while 7-in-10 require only a credential, certificate or associate’s degree.
There are as many as 30 million jobs with an average annual salary of $55,000 that don’t require a bachelor’s degree at all, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Moreover, those with tech educations are more likely to hold jobs—and jobs in their field of study—than those with academic degrees, according to Georgetown.
Companies partner with schools
Many community colleges and trade schools, hoping to help solve the labor shortage in the industry, are working directly with companies in need of skilled labor to design targeted training programs and cultivate future employees.
California Steel Industries, for example, has given roughly $2 million to Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, for an education center, according to the Hechinger Report.
Additionally, in 2016 Perry Technical Institute in Yakima, Washington, created a construction program after the contractor hired to build one of the campus’ new halls told the school president that he was having trouble finding the skilled workers he needed, Popular Mechanics reported this year.
It’s not unusual for trade schools to boast job placement rates above 90%. But after paying for a four-year degree, nearly half of college grads wind up working in jobs that don’t require a degree at all, according to a report from labor market data firm Burning Glass and the Strada Education Network.
The construction trades account for about 8% of tech school certificates, according to the Popular Mechanics report, with the average salary for graduates at more than $50,000. While it’s true that those with more education tend to command a larger salary, the cost of a college degree can be prohibitively high. A year-long program at most trade schools, by contrast, often costs less than a single semester for most four-year colleges.
Nevertheless, the earnings differential between those with degrees and those without seems to be shrinking.
The average earnings differential in 2015 between those with college degrees and those with only high school diplomas was $29,867; in 2000, it was $32,900, according to Census data cited in education magazine The Quad. While the differential is still significant, the downward trend may be a sign of what’s to come.
Meanwhile, the earnings gap between college graduates and trade school attendees is significantly smaller, at just more than $11,000, The Quad article said.
Ultimately, the right path for post-secondary education in the construction industry depends on a variety of factors. But trade and tech schools likely have the best return-on-investment for the majority of those looking for a career in construction.