Not every student belongs in college, and not every college degree equals success in life. For starters, there’s the cost. By 2019, Americans had already accumulated $1.3 trillion in outstanding student debt, while tuition rates rose nearly eight times faster than wages. In fact, real wages for college grads have barely risen at all in the past 20 years, and these Americans are more likely to be unemployed now than in 2000, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
By comparison, skilled trade jobs in industries like construction pay well and are often going unfilled. In November, the U.S. Bureau of Statistics reported 214,000 construction job openings across the country. In Georgia alone, the state’s Department of Labor estimates that there’ll be more than 271,000 skilled job openings by 2022. Meanwhile, a university survey of construction companies singled out staffing as their greatest challenge.
A Partnership in Georgia
Recently, three of Georgia’s leading philanthropies joined forces to close the construction skills gap, collectively committing $5.7 million to expand the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia’s (CEFGA) K-12 statewide programming and create a model that can be employed nationally. The three-year funding will allow CEFGA to double the number of state elementary, middle and high school construction programs, providing training and credentials to more than 17,500 students. All told, CEFGA expects to match more than 3,500 students with apprentice and employment opportunities.
All three foundations call Georgia home. Two have long and deep ties to trades training. The private foundation partners Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus were also partners in business, co-founding the home improvement giant Home Depot back in 1978. The CEFGA commitment marks the first collaboration between their foundations, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the Marcus Foundation and the Home Depot Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the company they created.
Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation
Since 1995, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has focused its funding on Atlanta, where its founder and chair built his business, which made a name for itself as a regional funder, investing more than $400 million in early childhood development, education, green space, community transformation and the arts. It also leads giving programs for Blank’s current family of businesses, which includes the NFL football team the Atlanta Falcons.
CEFGA became a “trusted partner” during the foundation’s neighborhood transformation and workforce development efforts in Atlanta’s Westside—an area adjacent to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the Falcons play. Since 2014, its “Westside Works” partnerships with CEFGA, Integrity CDC, YMCA of Metro Atlanta and Per Scholas report placements of 750 Westside residents, who’ve collectively earned more than $20 million in professions like construction and nursing.
Blank says nearly 400 of those jobs were in construction, and that he believes in “the power of workforce development programs to provide living-wage jobs and long-term economic mobility.”
The Home Depot Foundation
Trades training is one of the Home Depot Foundation’s three focus areas, along with serving veterans and disaster relief. Citing data that shows nearly 50 percent of businesses that depend on skilled labor struggle to find qualified candidates, it committed $50 million to help 20,000 workers enter the industry pipeline by 2028. That work largely dovetails with its commitment to supporting veterans. The partnership with the Home Building Institute (HBI) fills employment gaps in fields like plumbing and electrical engineering, while helping military veterans on 10 military bases across the country transition back to civilian life.
Joining the Home Depot Foundation in a commitment to trades training are other corporate leaders, including Eric Smidt, billionaire founder of Harbor Freight Tools, whose foundation supports prize competitions and other initiatives to expand workforce development focused on trade skills. Another funder in this space is the charitable and educational foundation of a Home Depot competitor, Lowes, which prioritizes skilled trade education along with affordable housing.
The foundation Bernie Marcus chairs practices “lean philanthropy,” which follows the investment and operating approaches that made him successful in business. While the Marcus Foundation doesn’t have a website, it has made more than $1 billion in big bets on areas like medical research, including 2017 grants and contributions totaling almost $150 million.
Marcus generally lets the foundation’s work do the talking. But on the subject of trades training, he had this to say: “I’ve been concerned for a number of years that students have been told that if they don’t get a college education, they can’t succeed. It’s not true. And it hasn’t been true since I was a kid. Many people have been successful after learning a trade. It helps make the world ‘work.’ Our country has grown and prospered because of electricians, plumbers, and all kinds of construction workers in every generation. Having a skill trade today can lead to a great job, no college debt, and the ability to provide for a family.”