Seeding local workforce innovation in skilled trades 

Kate Buchanan
Kate Buchanan May 2, 2022 5 min read

Seeding local workforce innovation in skilled trades

Image courtesy of Jamie Kelter Davis/Revolution Workshop

Impact investing and corporate philanthropy have unique roles to play in ensuring local workforce ecosystems thrive. Corporate philanthropy is uniquely suited to de-risk promising innovations including solutions solving workforce challenges. This is especially true for the manufacturing and construction sectors which are becoming increasingly digitized, resulting in a widening skills gap between worker knowledge and job readiness.  

The need to update skills regularly is needed in all industries but especially in skilled trades. Staying at the forefront of technological innovation can lead to career progression, increased responsibility, higher wages, and greater job security. In a recent study, 89% of skilled trades workers surveyed said they work with cutting-edge technology, and 94% say that their jobs are high in demand. 

The Autodesk Foundation is supporting the workforce of the future by investing in disruptive regional labor force solutions through its Work and Prosperity portfolio. The Foundation does so by investing in visionary leaders supporting workers in manufacturing and construction careers that are changing rapidly due to digital transformation.  

In order to address these issues holistically, we take a three-pronged approach by: 1) investing in place-based initiatives to meet workers where they are, 2) focusing on DEI efforts to expand the candidate pool, and 3) tracking measurable outcomes to know if we’ve achieved tangible impact. 

Meeting workers where they are 

The United States workforce is less mobile today than in any prior generation. Workforce mobility has been in the decline since the 1980s – a trend researchers say diverges from America’s tradition of “restless mobility” when individuals readily moved in search of new opportunities. 

This is particularly true for the manufacturing and construction industries which are growing by leaps and bounds. Unlike the proliferation of traditional technology jobs, these industries don’t easily lend themselves to remote work. Instead, they are inherently connected to a place. For individuals who like to design, engineer, manufacture, or construct physical products, roles in these industries are highly sought after. 

Yet, some experts warn, that as many as 2.1 million U.S. manufacturing jobs could go unfilled by 2030 and 10 million unfilled jobs globally. Meanwhile, construction firms are seeing a 3% growth in demand for labor. Last year construction firms recruited 125,000 workers and still need an additional 240,000 this year in the U.S. alone. 

In order to ensure workers aren’t left behind, local investment in upskilling and reskilling programs is paramount. But so is promoting promising skilled trade opportunities with workers who might not consider pursuing a career in either. 

Bridging the skills gap by expanding the candidate pool 

A key component of filling these promising roles is recruiting, hiring, and training diverse talent. Knowing workers are less likely to relocate for new roles, firms should widen their aperture for hiring more diverse talent in local economies. In fact, fewer than one in three manufacturing professionals are women today, despite representing nearly half of the overall workforce in the United States. And diverse hiring is good for the bottom-line. An analysis of Fortune 500 manufacturing companies reveals that companies fostering diversity and building inclusive environments are more likely to have stronger financial performance

Likewise, individuals who might not consider a job in what has traditionally been a skilled trade, might reconsider the benefits of roles in these industries. As advanced technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence further integrate into more traditional fields, wages are increasing. For instance, the Associated Builders and Contractors noted that in 2021, the average hourly earnings of U.S. based construction employees reached their highest level ever – at $32.11 per hour. 

Organizations like Pallet Shelter, an Autodesk Foundation investee, and social purpose corporation that manufactures rapid-response shelters supplying transitional housing in a community setting. Pallet is also focused on building a more equitable and inclusive manufacturing workforce by recruiting individuals who are traditionally shut out of employment opportunities but who demonstrate a commitment to the organization’s mission and a desire to build a manufacturing career. We hope to see more organizations like Pallet popping up to drive more inclusive hiring practices – closing the skills gap.  

Measuring outcomes 

While it’s important to measure how many students and professionals take advantage of new opportunities to learn and advance their careers, we believe it’s important to understand the outcome of those actions. Are individuals gaining access to quality jobs? Are those jobs paying a living wage, and providing benefits like healthcare and sick leave? As a result, we focus on tracking both “outputs” (like the number of individuals reskilled), and “outcomes” (like wage gains) to see if access to specific opportunities help workers prosper.  

It’s still early days, but through our partners we’ve supported training workers at scale including more than 12 million (via low-touch) and approximately 30,000 (via high-touch) training programs. In addition, we’ve seen $5,000 – $25,000 in wage gains (per person/year) and 17,644 job placements so far. Tracking these metrics helps us understand how our partners best-in-class approaches are changing industries at large. 

Betting on place-based innovators 

So how do we leverage our corporate philanthropic dollars to de-risk solutions? We’re investing in innovative organizations that are scaling disruptive workforce solutions in regions across the U.S. including in the Midwest, and Appalachia.  Here are just a few examples: 

What’s next? 

These are early-stage investments, and we’ll be tracking each organization’s progress to not only scale their solutions but also deliver outcomes for workers. We hope that by sharing our approach to supporting the manufacturing and construction workforces, we might inspire others to consider ways they can support local workforce innovation. 

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Future of Work