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Coaching Up the Next Generation

AGC MEMBERS AND CHAPTERS PLAY CRITICAL ROLE IN INDUSTRY’S WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT

With two brothers working for The Boldt Company as project managers, Sam Fassbender recognized a good opportunity and seized it, and if family history is any indication, he’ll be making a meaningful contribution to the construction industry for decades to come.

coaching up the next generationPHOTO COURTESY OF THE BOLDT COMPANY

Fassbender was among three high-school seniors to attend Signing Day on May 19 at Boldt’s equipment warehouse in Appleton, Wisconsin, where they were given hard hats and lunch pails for their new jobs. Fassbender, Kyle Holewinski and Liam Dumas had just completed Boldt’s High School Youth Apprentices program, sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

The three students were signing on the dotted line to begin four-year apprenticeships, two with the local carpenters’ union and one with the millwrights’ union, and would be working for Boldt, a member of multiple AGC chapters. While many of their peers were trying to figure out how to pay for college, Fassbender, Holewinski and Dumas were well on their way to rewarding careers as journeyman tradespeople.

“I think this is a turning point in their lives,” says Dave Kievet, Boldt’s president and chief operating officer. “This is where they’ve made the decision to be proactive, take their future in their hands and actually do something with it. Signing that paper is a commitment that, ‘I’m going to step up to the plate.’

“They’re going to be able to do anything they want in this industry. If they want to stay in the building trades, if they want to move up, if they want to go into construction management, if they want to be involved with any aspect of our organization, this is a great opportunity for these youths to launch their career.”

Students in Boldt’s program spend part of their day attending academic classes and the rest working for construction companies to gain hands-on experience. Students interested in the construction trades work right alongside registered apprentices, pouring concrete, putting up masonry, welding or repairing heavy equipment, while those interested in construction management may be tasked with expediting materials or reviewing shop drawings.

After racking up the necessary 450 hours of work experience to graduate, it was great to be recognized in front of friends, family, school administrators, teachers and union representatives on Signing Day, Fassbender says.

“It was special,” he says. “We’ve worked hard, and the recognition was really nice. My two brothers work here. Both of them are project managers. I’ve always liked to get my hands dirty, so I thought, ‘I’d like to try to be a carpenter.’ I’m so grateful for it.”

At the same ceremony, 11 students signed up to participate in the High School Youth Apprentices program for the 2021-22 school year.

“I’m such a hands-on person that I wanted something different [for my career],” says Natalie Thorp, one of those new participants. “It’s such a good opportunity to get started early in high school and then have your career under your belt early.”

Kievet says workforce-development initiatives like this one are essential to the long-term health of the construction industry, especially with cash-strapped school boards across the country eliminating their industrial arts programs, limiting students’ exposure to the industry. He says construction companies used to rely on local unions for a pipeline of talented workers, but as the national labor shortage has intensified in the past few years, affecting a broad swath of industries, savvy companies are recruiting workers directly.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment in the construction industry is expected to grow at an annual rate of 5% through 2029, outpacing most other labor sectors. However, more than half of construction companies are having trouble finding qualified workers and 49% expect it will either get harder or remain as hard to find them, according to AGC of America’s 2021 Construction Hiring and Business Outlook Report.

ray a fourth-year plumbing apprentice in the rk apprenticeshipRay, a fourth-year plumbing apprentice in the RK apprenticeship program, works in the skills lab as part of his apprenticeship training. PHOTO COURTESY OF RK INDUSTRIES

“The single biggest problem facing us in construction is our ability to attract and retain the best talent in the industry,” Kievet says. “Bringing young people into our organization very early allows us to retain them and actually train them according to our needs, and I believe that makes them better equipped to have a long career in this industry. This need has grown over the years, so we needed to look at more diverse ways of attracting talent into the construction industry.”

All across America, individual AGC members and chapters are working hard to recruit and prepare the next generation of construction professionals. Here are two more snapshots of those efforts.

DOING IT RIGHT IN DENVER

Years ago, when the late Ron Kinning was running the construction firm RK, he would visit garage sales, flea markets and estate sales looking for tools to donate to his apprentices.

“It was kind of funny because sometimes he’d be buying back our own tools that people had stolen,” says his son Jon Kinning, COO of Denver-based RK Industries, an AGC of Colorado Building Chapter member. “He wanted to give people dignity who were just coming into the industry. He didn’t want them to have to ask people to borrow tools all the time.”

Garage sales are hit or miss, but the inhouse apprenticeship program Ron Kinning established before he retired has been a home run, consistently churning out journeyman tradespeople since its inception in 1995. RK has its own licensed tradespeople who teach apprentices in sheet metal, plumbing, pipefitting, ironwork and structural fabrication, and the company outsources its apprenticeship training for electrical and HVAC service.

students in the boldt companys youth apprenticeshipStudents in The Boldt Company’s Youth Apprenticeship program will work on jobsites or in support roles over the next school year to determine what career in the construction industry suits their future. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BOLDT COMPANY

The in-house instructors teach and mentor RK’s apprentices through on-the-job training, classroom instruction and laboratory lessons. Apprentices get paid to learn, with wages starting at $16 an hour, plus a generous benefits package and the opportunity for pay increases every six months. First-year participants also get a toolkit tailored to their trade and valued at about $350.

Those who complete the program will have earned 45 credits toward a 60-credit associate’s degree in applied sciences through the Colorado Community College System, or they can apply those credits toward a bachelor’s degree in construction project management from Metropolitan State University of Denver, a pathway that RK created with university.

Each year of the four-year program runs from September through May, and participants spend the summer on vacation or working on jobsites. Jon Kinning says he expected to have about 100 first-year apprentices this fall, with another 150 returning apprentices.

The program conducts outreach at local schools and through more than three dozen community organizations, including Colorado Resource Partners, a coalition of groups partnering to connect local jobseekers with opportunities in the construction industry.

“The nice thing about going through our apprenticeship program is that they don’t owe anybody any money, so it’s low-risk for them, and hopefully they stick with it,” Kinning says. “For a lot of people, this program has been transformational.”

Kinning says some graduates of the apprenticeship program have become high-ranking executives and supervisors in the company. He views it as essential to RK’s workforce development, joking that the program reflects a combination of “altruism and desperation.”

“It’s not all altruism,” he says. “It’s an investment in the business and in our employees. That’s probably one of the things that’s led to our success over the years — just really investing in people and them investing in us. We’re pretty aggressive in our workforce development because we have an insatiable hunger for talent.”

In 2011, RK established the RK Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the community services, education and health of the places where the company does business. By recycling almost 18 million pounds of scrap metal and donating the proceeds to the foundation, the company has provided more than $2 million in grants to a wide range of groups.

Among them is Denver Public Schools, which used a grant to help establish the CareerConnect program. That initiative gives students early exposure to industries such as construction, engineering and advanced manufacturing, including hands-on training, and connects them with apprenticeship programs. In addition to funding, RK provided the program with professional guidance and a construction curriculum.

“We’re really focused on trying to build the next generation of tradespeople and making the pool of talent bigger in the marketplaces where we do business,” Kinning says.

OUTREACH IN OREGON

Oregon is the ninth-biggest state in the country in terms of area, so for the Oregon-Columbia Chapter-AGC, workforce development means casting a wide net. Asha Aiello, the chapter’s workforce and professional development program manager, says the chapter awards grants typically ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 to a number of preapprenticeship programs and groups each year.

Grants go to programs serving people of all ages, introducing young students to construction and giving adults a chance at a new career. And since talent can come from anywhere, donations go beyond the state’s three largest cities, Portland, Salem and Eugene, Aiello says.

“We try to spread out throughout the state because rural districts often have less resources,” she says. “A lot of our members are incredibly involved in their communities and want to support programming locally. They see the need in their communities and are looking to help meet that need.

“It’s really important to reach out to middle-school students and high-school students, but there’s also this adult population out there that we sometimes forget about that really needs support services to be able to get to work. They want to work, and they may not want to sit in an office all day.”

Still, Portland is home to 664,000 residents, and effective outreach means meeting people where they’re at, so the Oregon-Columbia Chapter-AGC supports three nonprofits offering free pre-apprenticeship programs in the city.

Oregon Tradeswomen provides a 192-hour program designed to prepare women for careers in the skilled construction trades. The group’s Trades and Apprenticeship Career Class introduces participants to a variety of skilled trades through field trips, guest speakers, hands-on workdays and tradespecific training opportunities.

The mission of Oregon Tradeswomen is to help women gain economic independence, and the group has career counselors that help graduates find jobs and apply to apprenticeship programs.

Constructing Hope offers a 10-week pre-apprenticeship program aimed at low-income people. Though the program is open to everyone, outreach efforts focus on the unemployed, racial minorities, women and those with a criminal record who are seeking a fresh start.

Similarly, Portland YouthBuilders has helped thousands of young people change their lives through education, vocational training and long-term career counseling.

Its YouthBuild program, for ages 17 to 24, helps people get their GED and teaches them all aspects of residential construction as they help to build affordable homes for local low-income families. Students receive hands-on training on real jobsites to prepare them to enter the construction industry. Young people ages 18 to 26 with a GED or high-school diploma are eligible for the Bridge program, a nine-week pre-apprenticeship program.

In addition to those groups, the chapter has donated to Talent Maker City, a makerspace facility in Talent, Oregon, offering hands-on workshops and programming focusing on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) education, local school districts seeking construction curricula and LatinoBuilt, a trade association for Latino contractors in Oregon that offers educational programs.

Another component of the chapter’s outreach efforts is its Educator Externship Program, which introduces teachers to the construction industry so they can bring that information back to their students. Aiello says educators of all types have participated, including elementary-school teachers, counselors from youth transition services and career technical education counselors.

Sessions typically last four to nine days and include deep dives into jobsite safety and apprenticeship programs. Educators spend a day at a jobsite with a general contractor, another day on a highway construction jobsite and a day at a community college learning about the construction-focused educational programs available to local students. Participants get their own hard hat and personal protective equipment and are eligible for continuing education credits, Aiello says.

“Educators often will write a lesson plan or two of their experience and bring that back to their classrooms,” she says. “At their core, all of these programs are about exposing people to the industry. We want to make sure we’re recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce in our industry, but to do that, you need to educate people about the industry.”

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