Construction Career Guide

With 44.2 million Americans struggling to pay over $1.44 trillion in student debt, more young people are looking for a way to enter the job market without taking loans. The days of going to college straight out of high school are starting to change, and with good reason. High school graduates don’t want to blindly sign on for a liberal arts education that may or may not land them a job that can pay off four years of debt.

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There are a few ways to start working without an undergraduate degree, but there’s one that’s particularly effective and often overlooked, construction. Commonly perceived as physically demanding, dirty, and low-paying, construction jobs actually offer a diverse range of opportunity and good compensation. High school graduates can get paid apprenticeships to learn a specific trade, gaining valuable skillsets and work experience while exploring potential career paths.

A few years of construction experience can open a number of doors to higher-paying salaries and job opportunities. The first few years in construction follow a fairly standard path, but after these initial steps the available options become much more diverse. Here’s a brief overview of what the first few years in construction might look like:

Level

Required Experience

Responsibilities

Apprentice

0 Years

As a paid apprentice, your responsibilities are primarily to show up to work on time, put in the effort to learn, and take classes. As you progress in your skills, pay and benefits will increase.

Journeyman

3-5 Years

Apprenticeships typically last 3-5 years depending on your speciality, at which point you will become a journeyman. This level comes with more opportunity for work, higher pay, and more independence.

Foreman

5+ Years

If you like your speciality and continue to show initiative, you can move up to foreman. Foremen supervise all the laborers within one speciality on a construction project.

With a few years experience and the income comes with it, you’ll be in a position to take your career in a number of directions. If you like the field you’ve chosen, you can continue to work your way up the ranks from foreman to superintendent and beyond. Or, you can save your income to attend college debt-free, allowing you to pursue any other field you may be interested in.

The most unique part about construction is the number of specialities you can pursue. Below we cover some of the most popular, check them out to get an idea of what a career in construction would be like.

Construction Career Profiles

Use the following profiles to understand some of the different construction specialties, their salaries, and their employment prospects. All data is according to the most recent Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Carpenters

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A carpenter’s responsibilities span a wide range, with the primary focus of building a structure’s framework according to the specifications of the architect. They work with a variety of materials and tools to ensure accuracy and aesthetic quality in their finished products. Carpenters are commonly divided into three categories:

  • Residential: Specializing in homes, condos, and apartments, residential carpenters frame interior and exterior walls, build decks, install doors and cabinets, along with a number of other tasks.

  • Commercial: Commercial carpenters do many of the same things as residential, but on a larger scale with materials meant for larger structures. They typically work on offices, hospitals, schools, and other large buildings.

  • Industrial: Carpenters working in an industrial setting focus on creating and setting forms for the support structures of major civil engineering or industrial projects.

Salary Data Median annual income: $43,600
Top 10%: $79,480 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

Alaska: $69,960
Hawaii: $68,960
Illinois: $62,380
New York: $61,900
New Jersey: $60,380

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 60,400 new carpentry jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 6%.

How to Become One

Carpentry typically requires a high school diploma, as the trade requires a degree of mathematical understanding. Most carpenters complete an apprentice program lasting 3 to 4 years, though on the job training is also an option.

Useful Resources United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America
Home Builders Institute Training Programs

Construction and Building Inspectors

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Construction and building inspectors ensure that structures are safe according to local codes, regulations, zoning, and ordinances. They work at all stages of a construction project to verify that the plans and actual construction meets the necessary requirements to make it usable or habitable. There are a number of specialities for inspectors. Some of the most common are:

  • Building: These inspectors monitor structural integrity and general safety of buildings.

  • Electrical: It’s the responsibility of electrical inspectors to ensure the safety of any wired system in a structure.

  • Mechanical: Proper use and installation of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration systems all fall under the scope of mechanical inspectors.

  • Public Works: Public works inspectors have the immense responsibility of ensuring large-scale infrastructure projects are sturdy and safe.

Salary Data Median annual income: $58,840
Top 10%: $94,220 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

Washington D.C.: $87,670
Alaska: $86,470
California: $ 83,690
Nevada: $74,660
Washington: $73,340

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 8,100 new building inspector jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 8%.

How to Become One

Construction and building inspectors generally have coursework in engineering, architecture, or inspecting, as well as years of experience working in construction. They also require specific licensure or certification that varies by state.

Useful Resources American Society of Home Inspectors
International Association of Certified Home Inspectors

Construction Equipment Operators

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Most construction projects require the use of heavy machinery, and this equipment requires people specially trained to operate it. Construction equipment operators are responsible for maneuvering and using their equipment safely, as well as understanding how to recognize problems and perform basic maintenance.

Salary Data Median annual income: $$45,040
Top 10%: $79,700 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

Illinois: $74,990
New York: $73,260
Hawaii: $73,050
New Jersey: $69,780
Alaska: $69,670

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 43,200 new equipment operator jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 10%.

How to Become One

A high school diploma or vocational school training is typically required to become a construction equipment operator. Many people also gain on the job training by starting with lighter equipment and working up to heavier equipment under supervision. Special licensure requirements vary by state.

Useful Resources International Union of Operating Engineers Training Programs
National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators

Construction Managers

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Construction managers oversee the successful execution of construction projects including budgeting, timing, and quality. Construction managers are present on all types of construction and will often manage more than one project at a time. They work closely with every member of the team to ensure success.  

Salary Data Median annual income: $89,300
Top 10%: $158,330 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

New Jersey: $141,500
Alaska: $127,810
New York: $121,030
Rhode Island: $112,300
Delaware: $111,170

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 17,800 new construction manager jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 5%.

How to Become One

A bachelor’s degree is not required to be a construction manager, but it is quickly becoming the new standard. It’s important for construction managers to have experience in all aspects of construction, so previous work in construction is typically suggested before pursuing a degree. Certification isn’t required, but is available to demonstrate expertise.

Useful Resources Construction Management Association of America
American Council for Construction Education

Electricians

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The installation and maintenance of electrical and communications systems is the main responsibility of electricians. Electricians must be able to understand technical specifications and properly wire a structure's electrical components in accordance with all safety standards and regulations. Additionally they are trained to use specialized tools for testing and diagnosing these systems.  

Salary Data Median annual income: $52,720
Top 10%: $90,420 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

Alaska: $81,600
Hawaii: $74,770
Illinois: $73,160
New York: $73,010
Washington D.C.: $71,960

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 85,900 new electrician jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 14%.

How to Become One

Electricians must have at least a high school diploma, and the majority of them complete a 4-5 year apprenticeship program to learn the details of electrical theory, mathematics, and building codes. Most states require licensing or certification to work as an electrician, though laws vary by state.

Useful Resources National Electrical Contractors Association
IBEW-NECA Electrical Training Alliance

Ironworkers

Ironworkers assemble the steel and iron that supports major structures. They are trained in specialized equipment to align, cut, bolt, and weld metal according to blueprints and other build documents. Also known as erectors, these specialist must be skilled at communicating with crane operators to ensure that materials move safely across a jobsite.

Salary Data Median annual income: $47,600
Top 10%: $89,980 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

New Jersey: $87,880
Illinois: $86,640
New York: $85,890
Washington: $73,960
Hawaii: $72,280

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 7,100 new ironworker jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 9%.

How to Become One

A high school diploma and some form of vocational training is typically required of ironworkers. Many choose to go through an apprenticeship program where they learn the skills the need on the job. Certifications aren’t required but often lead to higher pay.

Useful Resources American Welding Society Certification
International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers

Masonry Workers

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Masons assemble structures, such as walls and walkways, from brick, stone, and concrete. They use plans from the architect to calculate, prepare, and assemble materials to the specifications. There are several specialities within masonry:

  • Brickmasons: These specialist build and repair structures made from brick, terra cotta, concrete and other materials.

  • Cement Masons: Cement masons focus on pouring and finishing concrete, and must be experts at monitoring weather and temperature to ensure its effective use.

  • Stone Masons: Focusing in natural and artificial stone, these masons create stone structures using specialized tools adapted for the unique properties of stone.

Salary Data Median annual income: $41,230
Top 10%: $74,170 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

Massachusetts: $77,540
New York: $73,990
Illinois: $73,430
Washington: $73,180
Minnesota: $69,390

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 37,300 new masonry jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 15%.

How to Become One

A high school diploma with some technical courses is the most common qualification to enter masonry. Apprenticeships offering on the job training are another popular option. Licensure and certification is typically not required.

Useful Resources International Masonry Institute
Mason Contractors Association of America

Plumbers, Pipefitters, and Steamfitters

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The installation, repair, and inspection of pipes that carry liquid and gas is the primary domain of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters. Plumbers tend to focus on water, drainage, and gas pipes in residences and businesses, while fitters typically focus on pipes carrying chemicals, acids, and gases for industrial and commercial uses.

Salary Data Median annual income: $51,450
Top 10%: $90,530 and above
Best Paying States by Annual Mean Income

New York: $76,750
Illinois: $75,530
Oregon: $73,960
Washington D.C.: $71,120
Alaska: $71,030

Employment Opportunity

The BLS predicts 49,100 new plumbing and fitter jobs by 2024, a growth rate of 12%.

How to Become One

A high school diploma and and a 4-5 year apprenticeship are the typical entry requirements for plumbers and fitters. Plumbing codes and regulations are often complex, and many specialities also require studying math, chemistry, and physics. Licenses are typically required to work in this field.

Useful Resources United Association of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders, and Service Techs
Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association

Why Choose Construction?

Gaining professional experience and an income before attending college can set many individuals on a more stable path than simply going straight to higher education. It can give you time to choose a career path, help you save money to pursue your chosen career, and make you more competitive in applications for work and school.

Construction is one of the few fields that will pay you to learn a skill. Construction is also something that will always be in demand, and you’ll be able use your skills for the rest of your life. It makes a great option for people who want to enter the job market with little overhead cost and significant return.

If you have a story to tell about how construction was the right career choice for you, let us know in the comments. Be sure to subscribe to our blog to be updated on new pieces, and check out some of our other construction articles!

How to Rebuild Construction's Image

In 1996, Apple verged on bankruptcy. The company had failed to adapt to a rapidly changing industry and was paying the price. Construction finds itself in a similar situation today. Due to a widespread neglect of new technology and processes, the industry faces dismal productivity rates and billions of lost dollars. Though cause for some panic, it’s also a reason for excitement, as those who turn themselves around stand to reap substantial gains.

Unfortunately, construction is also caught in a negative cycle. Its poor public image prevents it from attracting fresh, innovative talent; and its lack of fresh, innovative talent prevents it from changing its image. The cycle needs to be broken before construction can more forward.

By making construction appeal to bright, young talent, the industry can boost its embrace of technology and reverse its productivity decline, escaping this trap. Essentially, construction needs a rebrand. The easiest way to understand this is to look at how Apple rebranded itself back from the brink of death.

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Apple's turnaround hinged on two major things: innovation and image. While the comparisons aren’t 100% equal, as we’re looking at the actions of one company vs. the actions of an industry, construction nonetheless stands to learn a lot from the Apple of 1996. If individual construction firms can successfully follow Apple’s model on a smaller scale, the industry as a whole can experience a turnaround.

Rebranding Construction

Wired published an incredibly prescient article in 2002 detailing the success of Apple’s branding. Here are a few key takeaways:

  • It’s Simple: The brand feels like something people intuitively understand. 

  • It’s Ethical: The brand associates itself with improving the world.

  • It’s Emotional: The brand builds a community that people feel connected to.

Within these three points, there’s a goldmine of opportunity for industry players. Construction has a huge ethical and emotional aspect, but it hasn’t capitalized on it. Barbara Jackson, author of the textbook Construction Management: JumpStart, makes this point rather well in a section titled “It’s Just Construction.” She points out that the public only identifies unique structures with the designer, not with the general contractor. Because, after all, “it’s just construction.”

She later goes on to observe:

“Our society does not take the contributions of the construction industry very seriously. But it should, because without these contributions, this world would be a very bleak place. When you walk out of your office, home, or classroom today, just take a good look at the world around you. I want you to notice the houses, the churches, the hospitals, the shopping malls, the theaters, the baseball stadiums, the bridges, the streets, and even the cars driving around. None of these would exist without construction. There would be no cars, or any other manufactured products, because there would be no manufacturing plants - no Nike shoes, no McDonald’s restaurants, no Gap stores. There would be no commerce, no transportation, no manufacturing. Progress and construction go hand in hand - we can’t have one without the other. Our society, our economy, and our culture are all dependent upon the construction industry.”

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Construction is an incredibly human activity. The key to changing construction’s image lays in staking claim to the truth that construction literally builds our world and enables our progress. By taking these ethical and emotional realities and communicating them simply and effectively, the industry can shift its image, engage the public, inspire youth, and use that momentum to reverse its negative track-record.

It all sounds great in theory, but also feels like too lofty a goal to put into practice. However, with small, actionable steps implemented on a per project basis, construction firms will slowly shift the industry's image on a local, then national, then global scale.

How Construction Firms Can Change Their Image

To change its image, construction must engage the public. The industry needs to shift attention toward its numerous benefits while minimizing its negative stereotypes. The best way for this to happen is through a grassroots style effort. Why? Because construction is fragmented. In the US there are over 650,000 construction employers, all focusing on different specialities in different regions.

Change in the industry won’t come from one place, it must come from the concerted effort of thousands of firms across hundreds of thousands of individual projects. Every firm also has motivation to take part, given that the ones who don’t truly risk being left behind.

What exactly does a grassroots movement to change construction’s image involve? It can be any number of things, but here are few we feel will be most effective:

Become a Part of the Community Around Your Sites

The typical response to a new construction site is groans of resentment. It's not a completely unwarranted reaction, as construction tends to come with increased noise, congestion, and dust.

While you can’t change the negative side effects of a construction project, you can try to minimize them by engaging the surrounding community. If people feel like they are involved with your team and understand your work, they’ll be better able to process the negative emotions they may have toward your project. Additionally, by becoming more aware of the day-to-day activities of a construction site, people can become more familiar with the details of a construction career.

The basic idea is just to make friends and to make your company available to the community. Through these interactions you will help build an understanding of what construction does and why. You’ll generate interest in the field while reducing negative perceptions of construction sites.

How can you do it?

  • Appoint a liaison to visit the homes and business surrounding your site.
    • Explain the project, and provide contact information should they have any issues or questions.
  • Create a publication to highlight progress and feature employees.
    • This is a great opportunity to use drone footage to promote your site.
    • Add a personal touch by featuring different contractors and describing their roles.
    • Be sure to detail progress and call attention to any major disruptions construction may cause.
  • Remind employees they are representatives of not just the company, but the industry as a whole.
    • Respectful and friendly engagement with the community is imperative. One negative interaction can ruin your entire effort.
  • Offer tours of your site when safe to do so.
  • Make friends and make your company available to the community.
    • If there are community events taking place, ensure a couple representatives from the site attend.

Join Recreational Sports Leagues

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Similar to becoming part of the community around your construction sites, having your company join a recreational league is another way to get your foot in the door with people who otherwise might never be exposed to the industry. It’s also a good opportunity for your employees to de-stress and have fun with their co-workers.

The point here isn’t so much to educate people about construction and what you do, but just to build friendly relationships that associate your business and construction with nice, fun people. All you have to do is enjoy yourself and socialize.

How can you do it?

  • Ask your employees what sport they would like to play.
    • Use Google to find a rec league, then sign up.
    • Have fun!

Make Visits to Local Schools

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School visits are one of the best ways to generate interest in construction, and they should take place at every level of education. This is an opportunity to educate children and young adults on all aspects of a construction career, and get them to start planning to enter construction early.

Many young adults aren't aware of the construction opportunities available to them, and this is a chance to show off all the cool shit that happens on construction sites. Also, be prepared to come with data when speaking to high school and college students. Job opportunities and salaries are a big motivator for young adults, and having hard numbers will help boost interest.

How to do it?

  • Reach out to school administrators and use Google to find high school/college career fair opportunities.
    • If visiting a career fair, be sure to have internships or entry level positions available.
  • Prepare a brief presentation about your industry that’s targeted to the audience.
    • For younger children, explain the basics of construction and entertain them with some of the cool equipment.
    • For older students, illustrate why construction is interesting and why it is a lucrative career to invest in.
  • Be sure to bring along your technology.
    • Drones, construction videos, and AR gear are all fun things that kids don't often get to see up close.

Have a Strong Web Presence

The internet is the first place people go when they want to know more about something, and all of this outreach will naturally generate web traffic. Your website should be built to engage not only potential clients, but also the public in general.

At the bare minimum, be sure to maintain a blog that details the progress of all your sites, highlights the accomplishments of your company and your employees, gives examples of the technology you're using, and provides engaging visual material.

You should also maintain a resources section that provides people with information on construction in general, as well as information on how to get involved with your company. The sky's the limit when it comes to your web presence, so be sure to have a little fun as well.

How can you do it?

  • Your website should be run by your marketing team.
    • Explain to your team what you want, and work with them to shape a final product that meets your goals
  • If you don't have a marketing team, look at hiring a freelancer.
    • Sites like Upwork will let you hire someone that can build out a site for you, and set it up so you can update it yourself.

Participate in Charitable Causes

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Charity is important for every business to engage in. You can give back to the community while getting people interested in your business and industry. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Construction for Change are no brainers for construction firms, but anything that you're interested in is a good avenue to pursue.

However, for helping out and engaging young people, there is one option that is particularly effective: offering a scholarship. Scholarships generate interest in your field, give back to the community, and help a motivated individual further their career.

How can you do it?

  • There are a few simple steps to offering a scholarship
    • Set aside the amount of money you want to donate
    • Establish the criteria for applying
    • Put out a call for applications
    • Pick a winner
  • Once you announce the winner, you can contact the school’s bursar office to deposit the money directly into the student’s account.

Treat Your Sites Like Prime Retail Property

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Construction sites are often on highly visible real estate. This is an ideal chance to advertise for free in a location that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars. Any signage you put up will likely have to be negotiated with the developer, but that doesn’t mean you should neglect this opportunity. You can use this space to:

  • Provide a QR code for your website

  • Tell people where they can watch your progress

  • Advertise your scholarship or charitable event

  • Highlight some of the cool tech you’re using

This is an easy and cost-effective way to engage everyone who passes your site, and let people know there is a lot more to construction than what they’re used to.

How can you do it?

  • When negotiating your contract, be sure to include terms that allow you specific rights to advertise on the site.
  • Get your marketing department involved.
    • Because you will have so much visibility, it's important that your advertising is well thought out.
  • Hire a freelancer if you don't have anybody in-house.
    • As mentioned before, a freelancer can put together a campaign for you if you don't have the marketing staff.

Implementing a Community Engagement Plan

The above ideas are meant to get the juices flowing and provide tangible examples of how you can lead the charge when it comes to changing construction’s image. Pick and choose among them to test what works best for you. You should also toss the ideas around your company and see if anyone comes up with something original. As long as you’re getting the community positively involved and engaged in construction, you’re accomplishing the goal.

To make sure your firm actually undertakes the above initiatives, let’s look at a general step-by-step process to make this happen:

  1. Create a community engagement plan to be distributed to all of your sites
    • Decide which of the above initiatives you’re going to pursue.
    • Draft out a plan that details the steps you will take and who will be responsible for each.
  2. Get leadership to sign off on it
    • This needs to become official company policy, so make sure it goes through your official channels.
    • If you're having trouble convincing people, remember that community outreach is also fantastic marketing. These efforts should go a long way in drumming up business.
  3. Appoint a public engagement leader for each site
    • Someone working on the site needs to be put in charge of handling all the public outreach and activities for the site.
  4. Make sure the initiative is distributed among all contractors
    • For this to work, everyone needs to be aware of what’s going on and agree to the terms. One bad apple can ruin all your efforts.
  5. Get Feedback, review, and revise
    • Make sure to review these activities with everyone to get feedback on how your program is going. Ultimately what you want to see is a spike in public interest and more engagement from young people.
    • Note which efforts are generating the most results and re-double your investment in those. If there are some that are slacking, see if you can figure out why and make adjustments.

Where does construction go from here?

By re-branding itself, construction can attract the talent that will drive innovation. Within this challenge, there’s a ton of opportunity. The more players that take part in transforming the industry, the more ideas that are circulated and the more creativity that takes place. It’s not going to be an instantaneous effect, but shifting public opinion is never easy.

Remember, to get people to change their feelings toward construction, follow Apple's example: keep it simple, ethical, and emotional. The industry needs to remind people of the power of construction and how much of the modern world is literally built by the industry. Eventually people will go from "it’s just construction" to "wow, it's construction."

The next parts in our series will be giving examples of some web resources that companies can provide to engage people, and generate more interest among youth.

If you have any ideas for community engagement we didn't cover here, please leave them in the comments below or reach out on LinkedIn. Also be sure to check out the other parts in this series and subscribe to our blog to get notified when we publish other pieces!