Teens in construction? Industry groups say yes

Minnesota law permits teens ages 16 and 17 to work in a variety of fields, often through formal apprenticeships and dual credit programs. But unlike health care facilities, farms and even many factories, construction sites are a no-go: Minors under 18 are not permitted on construction projects or in mines, quarries or logging operations, among others.
With construction facing a years-long workforce shortage, it’s more important than ever to get young people interested in the profession early, said David Siegel, executive director of BATC-Housing First Minnesota.
“There seems to be general recognition that we have to do a better job of providing technical career exposure to young people, because for a lot of young people, it’s the right thing for them,” Siegel said in an interview.
BATC and other industry groups are hoping to see the state relax its rules to allow 16- and 17-year-old workers to do certain jobs on construction sites. The idea isn’t unprecedented: federal Department of Labor regulations ban 14- and 15-year-olds from construction but leave the door open to older teens, and a number of states do permit 16-year-olds on the job site, Siegel said. There also would have to be restrictions to ensure safety, Siegel said, keeping teens off some of the more injury-prone jobs on a work site.
“You can put some restrictions on the equipment they would use, height, things like that, to ensure they’re safe,” he said. “I think it’s more about exposure on the job site. It doesn’t have to be a full-on construction opportunity. It’s how do we get them seeing what it’s like and experiencing, ‘Wow, this is something I really want to do.’”
A number of legislators have expressed interest in the idea. Rep. Bob Vogel, R-Elko New Market, said the idea has come up from business advisory groups in his south metro district.
“It certainly wouldn’t be in the dangerous type things,” Vogel said in an interview. “But there are a number of activities that I remember being discussed that, even though they seem somewhat menial, need to be done on a construction site. They could give people an idea what [construction] is about.
“I think the idea has merit,” he added. “Obviously it needs a lot of fleshing out, because you can’t just throw 17-year-olds on a construction site.”
Safety concerns came up repeatedly in interviews about changing the age limit. The Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council has not been involved in the current debate on the issue, but would want to see safety addressed as well as an explanation for how the program would create lifelong workers rather than simply another summer job, President Harry Melander said.
“We really have to have some further discussions with our contractors and training partners,” Melander said, “and also with the [Department of Labor and Industry], which I assume would also have concerns about putting individuals in what can be at times a very challenging job that can be very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
The path forward to changing the rule isn’t currently clear. BATC has been looking into the matter since before the legislative session began, but does not have a specific policy proposal to bring to legislators, Siegel said. Vogel said he is not aware of any legislation currently pending that would lower the age limit to work on construction sites.
In fact, it’s not even clear legislation is needed. A spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry declined to comment on the merits of the change, but noted in an email that the Child Labor Standards Act grants the department’s commissioner the power to make or revise rules as they deem appropriate to carry out the purpose of the law.
One way or another, Siegel hopes to get the ball rolling for change in 2019 and give youths another on-ramp to careers in construction.
“There are just some things that are pretty commonsense that I think we can all agree on,” he said.