Carolina community colleges draw students toward trades

Zachery Eanes, The Herald-Sun

Students learn masonry at Central Carolina Community College’s Building Construction Technologies program. Photo by Zachery Eanes/The Herald-Sun

A year ago, Angela Cacace was cutting hair, a career she’d had since her early 20s.

Now, the 30-year-old is stepping into a new profession full time: construction.

“As a woman, no one tells you to be a general contractor,” Cacace said. “I never thought it would have been a viable career option.”

It wasn’t until after she received plaudits in the magazine This Old House on a kitchen remodel she had done that she realized she should pursue her DIY projects as a career.

So, Cacace, who moved to Cary from Washington, D.C., in 2013, enrolled into her local community college to hone her skills, get necessary certifications and find connections in the industry.

She is now part of a new class of students at Central Carolina Community College, studying in the year-old Building Construction Technologies program at the Pittsboro campus of the community college.

The program is training dozens of young and second-career students in construction trades: carpentry, masonry, safety certifications, among other things. About 30 percent of the students are women, too, a notable fact for an industry where only 9 percent of workers are women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The construction industry, when you are trying to get into it, especially as a woman, there are not a bunch of resources,” Cacace said. “It’s a bit daunting about what classes to take and where to begin.”

Labor shortage

The community college program hopes to make transitions like Cacace’s easier. But it also has another goal: To help fill a labor shortage, lead instructor Jeff Gannon said.

For the past decade, the number of people working in the construction trades in North Carolina and across the country has been on a downward spiral.

The decline is compounded in the parts of the country seeing high population growth, such as the Triangle region and Charlotte, where a lack of trained workers can delay construction projects and increase costs and wages. According to a recent survey by Associated General Contractors of America, 76 percent of North Carolina contractors reported difficulty filling hourly craft positions.

And for those looking to remodel their bathrooms: tile and terrazzo contractors earn 11 percent more per hour than a year ago, according to The Economist.

But if the program is going to succeed, it will have to convince more students like Cacace to take up the trades. An entire generation has been taught that four-year degrees are superior, Gannon said.

“The emphasis of the last 10 years has been about getting students into four-year education,” he said. “But the problem is you can’t shift (construction) jobs overseas. You have to have local people that are able to diagnose a problem in the wiring. … If you have a roof leak you have to have someone local.”

A national trend

In the past decade, a million new residents moved to North Carolina, mostly to the Triangle and the Charlotte area.

But one area where that growth has not been seen – and has instead shrunk – is the number of North Carolinians working in construction trades, despite the rapid growth of apartments and subdivisions.

The carpentry profession has seen it the worst, with a 40.8 percent reduction since 2007, falling from 25,660 workers in 2007 to 15,200 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Steep declines have been seen in other construction professions, too, with the number of electricians decreasing by 22.1 percent, plumbers (17.3 percent), roofers (27.6 percent) and cement masons (14.6 percent) over the same period.

The trend is reflected across the nation. Labor bureau data shows that 1.1 million fewer Americans work in the construction industry compared to a decade ago.

The shortfall of construction workers began during the Great Recession of the last decade, where many general contractors lost work or retired. The average age of most trade workers is now in the 50s.

“This is a big issue that will only get worse with the demands of rebuilding for (hurricanes) Harvey and Irma,” N.C. State University economist Michael Walden said. “Many skilled tradespersons left the industry during the recession, (and) also, immigration of such workers had slowed.”

Immigrant workers, mainly from Latin America, have filled much of the gap, but immigration numbers have also declined in recent years, Walden added. In fact, the number of people caught trying to sneak over the border from Mexico has fallen to the lowest level in 46 years, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

While the recession knocked a large number of general contractors out of the industry, the problem also includes a lost generation of students who were steered toward four-year degrees rather than trade schools.

“A long-term shift in attitudes about the attractiveness of these jobs needs to occur,” Walden said.

Community colleges

Chuck Wilson has worked in construction for the vast majority of his 74 years on Earth. The owner of Durham’s C.T. Wilson Construction Co., he has growing concerns about fewer people working in the field.

“Right now things are just booming. They are booming about as much as I have ever seen,” he said. “But the concern in the industry has always been about the number of people coming into the construction trades.”

C.T. Wilson, along with some other companies, have pushed Durham Technical Community College to recruit more young students into the trades. Wilson said the industry as a whole needs to work on its image.

“It is really our job to go out the middle schoolers and high schoolers to let them know those opportunities exist,” said Maryah Smith-Overman, director of construction trades at Durham Tech.

Local community colleges have begun to address the problem, though educators say it will require convincing young people that the trades are attractive careers.

“By high school people start sorting themselves into tracts,” Gannon said. “We need to be more proactive at reaching out.”

Smith-Overman believes it’s important to show high school students where there is a direct path to employment. She has helped bring several contractors to Orange High School in Hillsborough and Southern High School in Durham to make connections with high school students.

“These young folks are interested in getting jobs and want to join the workforce,” she said. That’s why we when we brought four different contracting companies to the high schools … it was a conversation about what their education had been and where they wanted to go. … Those are important conversations.”

Cacace believes that the schools need to do a better job letting people know the salaries they can achieve working in the trades.

“In America, we have this cultural taboo that everyone needs to go to college,” Cacace said. People think “if you are a plumber you must be a failure, which is kind of crazy because they make a bunch of money.”

So far, for her, business is booming.

“There are so many projects to work, because there is no one to do it,” she said. “I am turning down jobs, and I am booked through March.”


  • Carpenters: $35,560
  • Electricians: $42,960
  • Plumbers: $42,530
  • Brick masons: $38,050
  • Cement masons: $34,620
  • Roofers: $33,620
Source: The Bureau of Labor Statistics
Zachery Eanes writes for the Herald-Sun, where this article was originally published.