Why America has so few carpenters

The Great Recession led to a carpenter exodus. But cultural and pay issues have stunted the profession’s growth for far longer.

When Desmond Collins was in his 20s, he cycled between low-paying jobs at places like McDonald’s and Taco Bell, grasping for any opportunity, he said, to “make enough money where you’re not pulling your hair out.”  

Everything changed when Collins bumped into a family friend who introduced him to carpentry. 

The first few years weren’t easy: The physical labor was taxing, and Collins had to prove himself among more experienced workers. As a Black man, he faced discrimination when applying to jobs.

Nevertheless, after a four-year apprenticeship, Collins, who is now 57, embarked on a successful career that has seen him work for a union, nonunion companies, and finally as his own boss. His annual salary has reached up to $75k — enough to buy a house in a suburb between San Diego and Los Angeles, vacation in Mexico, and save money. 

“It’s opened up so much of the world and so many possibilities for me that it totally changed my life,” Collins said. 

Talk to a lot of carpenters, and they’ll express similarly warm feelings about their job. It’s the rare profession that doesn’t require an expensive education, yet offers decent pay. It’s largely unaffected by automation or globalization. And aside from occasional downturns, carpenters are in steady demand.  

Yet in America, there aren’t many people following the career trajectory of Collins.

Collins on the job in San Diego (courtesy of Desmond Collins)

Even among the other construction trades, which have long faced retention and recruitment problems and for which there were ~400k unfilled jobs in March, carpentry stands out for its shortages. Builders have more trouble finding carpenters than roofers, electricians, or just about anything else, and by a wide margin.  

At the same time, carpentry also stands out for its importance. 

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“They’re indispensable for really any kind of residential construction project,” Paul Emrath, VP of surveys and housing policy research for the National Association of Home Builders, told The Hustle.

As people reckon with expensive real estate amid a national housing shortage and endure long wait times for repairs and remodeling, the question is more important than ever: Why doesn’t America have enough carpenters?

Reeling from the Great Recession

 

You don’t have to look hard to find Americans trying and failing to hire carpenters during almost any era. Shortages popped up on a regional basis as far back as the 1940s and became entrenched nationally in the ’90s.  

Since then, one of the only reprieves from the shortage was when the financial crisis hit in 2008. There was no longer a scarcity of carpenters because hardly anybody was building. As soon as construction slightly bounced back, in 2011, builders began worrying about a shortage of carpenters again

Many of the carpenters who lost their jobs in the financial crisis left the industry for good. And now that home construction is approaching pre-Great Recession levels, the shortages have reached new highs.

In 2018, a survey by the National Association of Home Builders revealed 90% of single-family builders reported a shortage of rough carpenter subcontractors.

Those numbers were even higher in the NAHB’s most recent poll from last November. Builders were finding it harder to hire the 3 types of carpenters than any other building trade.

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“Wherever we are in terms of shortages of labor, the shortages are always the most acute and widespread for the categories of carpenters,” Emrath said.

The carpenter shortage could be worse were it not for pandemic-rooted supply issues, Emrath added. Homebuilders would need even more carpenters if it didn’t take them several months to procure enough lumber to start a new house.  

But the shortage of carpenters has still led to construction delays and higher expenses for builders.

As Ed Brady, president of the Home Builders Institute, told the website Bankrate, he used to pay carpenters $2.50 per square foot to frame a house and now pays nearly 3x as much — a cost that is passed on to consumers.

Yet even with rising wages, carpenters find they’re not making enough money.

Why carpenters make far less than plumbers

If you compare the median wage of a carpenter to a fast-food worker, a bus driver, or a real estate agent, carpentry wins. But if you compare carpenter pay to almost any other building trade, the other trade comes out on top. 

A recent analysis of US Bureau of Labor Statistics data by the NAHB indicated carpenters, with median annual earnings at $48k, ranked last in median pay out of 19 of the most common trades. 

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The lower wages of carpenters have been consistent for generations, although the difference between them and other popular trades was previously not as drastic.

In the mid-1920s, for instance, an average carpenter made ~5% less than an average electrician. The difference now is ~14%. The pay gap has also grown between carpenters and plumbers. 

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“You have to look at it as underpaid in relation to almost any other sector… in terms of what you’re putting in and what you’re getting out financially,” said Ethan James, a carpenter who runs the YouTube account “The Honest Carpenter.”

James used to operate his own business in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area, allowing him to make more than union carpenters and carpenters who work for construction companies.

He typically signed on for projects that paid him ~$60 an hour. But his rates still lagged behind what independent plumbers ($80-$130 per hour), electricians ($75-$120 per hour), and HVAC technicians ($120-$180 per hour) commanded in the same region, according to James.

He sees a few reasons for why carpenters make less money than their peers in the trades: 

  • Extensive nature of the job: Carpenter projects, both remodels and new builds, often take weeks or months, whereas plumbers and electricians can finish jobs in a matter of hours. James says it’s hard to charge for higher amounts over longer periods of time. 
  • Lower barrier to entry: Carpenters do not have to go through an extensive licensing process in most states, as electricians and plumbers do. In Raleigh, James says anybody can buy a tool belt and call themselves a carpenter. 

Ethan James muses about the construction industry and shares carpentry tips for 603k followers on YouTube. (Courtesy of Ethan James) 

But despite that lower barrier to entry, carpenters still have to pick up skills that are as difficult to master as those required in higher-paying trades, while risking injury. Knee pain led to James stopping his carpenter business to focus on his popular YouTube channel. (Collins also recently stopped working because of injuries.)

“Why is anybody going to do [carpentry] anymore if they can make money doing something else, especially better money even doing another trade?” James asked.

Coupled with the Great Recession-spurred exit of carpenters from the workforce, the salary gap counts as an economic reason for America’s carpenter shortage. But there are also cultural reasons for why carpenter numbers have been low for so long.

Disenfranchising women and Black workers

Nickeia Hunter was inspired by construction at a young age, dreaming of turning raw materials into something communities can use forever. But her father warned that she would never make it.

“My dad kept it prevalent in my mind that it wasn’t a space I’d be brought into,” Hunter told The Hustle. “And he was right.” 

Most young carpenters face hazing when they start out, but Hunter, like many Black and female carpenters, dealt with racial animosity and isolation. One time, she says, 2 carpenters pulled back a two-by-four piece of lumber and let it slap her in the face. 

Between the verbal and physical abuse and the failure of the experienced carpenters to provide instruction, it took her 7 years to finish an apprenticeship that was supposed to take 4 years.

To get the other workers to train her and eventually rise to the level of foreman, Hunter says she “had to conform to be an asshole” and laugh at the racist and sexist jokes she regularly heard. 

Nickeia Hunter says she’s seen “plenty of people leave” carpentry after dealing with abuse and discrimination as apprentices. (Courtesy of Nickeia Hunter)

Collins, who wrote The Black Carpenter’s Guide, experienced similar racism in the San Diego area.

He recalls instances where leaders at union job sites would tell him no work was available, only to hear from a co-worker that the leadership was bringing on everyone except Black carpenters. When he did get jobs, he would often be excluded from higher-paying positions like foreman. 

“They just want you to show up and be happy and keep your mouth shut,” Collins said. “That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.”  

Carpentry is not the only trade plagued by systemic racism and sexism. But the few diversity statistics available indicate its problem may be worse than other trades, preventing carpentry from attracting a wide enough pool of prospective workers. 

  • According to HBI, a nonprofit partner of the National Association of Home Builders, 30% of carpenters are foreign-born. The share of painters, roofers, drywall installers, and cement masons is 39% or higher.  
  • BLS data shows that only 3% of carpenters are women. Women make up 47% of America’s workforce overall, but just 11% of construction professions.
  • ~6% of carpenters are Black, according to the BLS, which is in line with the rest of the construction industry and below the share of Black employees represented in the entire economy (~12%). 

Collins building a home (courtesy of Desmond Collins)

Last December, Hunter left her union carpenter job. She now works for the Oregon Tradeswomen as a culture change liaison in its RISE Up program

The organization’s mission is to train construction leaders on diversity and inclusion, so they’ll be better prepared to mentor trades workers in less hostile environments. 

“Construction will not make it if they cannot diversity their front,” Hunter said.

Can carpentry be saved?

People who work in or study the trades find a reason for the carpenter shortage that stands above nearly everything else: exposure.

For generations, young people have been encouraged to place college above work in the trades (and to see college as a binary choice separate from the trades), stigmatizing the work and decimating the programs that once introduced teenagers to carpentry and other skills. 

As a result, hardly anyone picks up a saw at a young age. Most people never even watch somebody engage in carpentry or have any idea what it takes to become a carpenter.  

“There isn’t much of an obvious pathway at all,” said Sarah Smith, co-founder of Sawhorse Revolution, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides community and education for young carpenters.

And many former paths have closed. In Seattle, Smith notes, 17 public high schools once had wood shop classes, a number that shrunk to 3. Because of recent budget cuts, the future of Seattle Central College’s Wood Technology Center is in limbo.

Ever so slightly, though, Smith sees heightened opportunities around carpentry from other sources. 

  • One of the Seattle high schools that dropped wood shop, for instance, resuscitated the program, bringing the number of schools with wood shop to 4. 
  • Several states have increased funding for career and technical education in recent years. 
  • Nationwide enrollment in construction programs at the high school level has rebounded to 2007 levels after being on the decline for several years. 

Zachary Crockett / The Hustle

There’s also the TikTok and Instagram factor. 

For the last 20 years, the US has been awash in reality TV programming centered on houses. But those television shows have usually glorified designers and realtors rather than the people who actually build and renovate homes. 

Social media has added a new dimension. Instead of sticking to quick before-and-after characterizations like on TV, carpenter influencers reveal the nuances of their trade, showing viewers the actual work it takes to create something.

“That’s the part that I find some solace in,” said Mischa Fisher, chief economist at Angi, “knowing that there are now people on Instagram that have a million followers, and they’re in the trades. That’s amazing.”   

But it will still take immense work for the cultural and macroeconomic trends that have created America’s carpenter shortage to be reversed. 

And if they’re not, James, who is “The Honest Carpenter” on YouTube, warns that average people struggling with high prices and a record low number of houses on the market should prepare for more of the same in the future. 

“A lot of it’s going to land on homeowners and consumers,” he said. “They’re just not going to be able to get anything done, and they’re just going to pay exorbitant rates.”

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