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Contractors Roll Up their Sleeves on Workforce Development


The construction industry has done a wonderful job over the decades building infrastructure and making tremendous strides in technology. However, just ask anyone in the industry and, more than likely, they will say the number one challenge is attracting young people and skilled workers. Combine this with a low unemployment rate, and the problem is as acute as ever.

Even with a multitude of career opportunities available and lucrative salaries, the industry still suffers from a public relations problem. For instance, high schools across the country tend to have a “college-for-all mentality” and stress attending college over seeking out a career in the trades, even though most will agree that a university education is not necessarily for everyone.

To overcome this challenge, more construction companies are creating and expanding on workforce development programs.

In 2015, long-time Carolinas AGC member United Infrastructure Group (UIG), one of the Southeast’s leading firms in the infrastructure industry headquartered in Great Falls, South Carolina, made the decision to transition from a temporary to permanent hiring strategy to a direct hire strategy. This decision was to support the philosophy that UIG hires for the career — not the job.

“This has been a multi-faceted and long-term recruitment strategy since unemployment is at record lows and there is a shortage of skilled workers,” explains Rebecca Battle-Bryant, vice president, human resources and recruitment strategies. “We have been actively working to address workforce development challenges by developing robust recruitment and retention strategies, to not only bring as many qualified applicants to UIG, but to keep them so they may enjoy a fulfilling career and we can have workforce stability in order to grow.”

UIG implemented an online applicant tracking and onboarding software, which is the latest in HR technology for recruiting and onboarding, especially millennials and younger employees. This has achieved a number of things: a broader outreach of its job postings; 24-hour access to UIG job descriptions and applications via computer, tablet or smartphone; a dramatic increase in the number of applications received; and significantly faster hiring and onboarding time frame, all of which are critical in this competitive job market.

“We intentionally foster relationships at the local and state level within the K-12 and higher education communities to deliver the message: ‘Construction is the high-growth, high-demand industry to start and grow one’s career,” says Battle-Bryant.

“UIG was a sponsor at Teen CEO [Career Exploration Opportunity] at Winthrop University, participated in multiple job/career fairs throughout South Carolina and North Carolina, sponsored a youth apprentice in the maintenance shop (who has since become a full-time employee), hosted college interns each summer, and advised and supported a construction training program, through a local community college, ‘Behind the Fence’ at a South Carolina correctional facility to prepare incarcerated veterans for a skilled trade prior to returning to society,” Battle-Bryant adds.

And if that weren’t enough, in July 2017, UIG formed a training committee to address retention of our workforce.

“Our CFO, two vice-presidents and a foreman, who is a master-certified NCCER instructor, met over several weeks and developed an NCCER-based assessment of our four high demand jobs — carpenter, concrete finisher, crane operator and skilled laborer,” says Battle-Bryant. (NCCER is a not-for-profit that develops craft training programs and promotes construction careers through the Build Your Future initiative.)

UIG’s new program was approved, and a new hire assessment program was implemented, which involved investing in materials and human resources to conduct this training. This program is conducted the first week of employment to expose new craft employees to the rigors of the job, in a controlled environment, in addition to classroom instruction on key components of NCCER’s core curriculum. It is felt this program is not only reducing turnover rates, but minimizing churn in the field, because expectations are clearly defined the first week.

That training committee evolved into a Recruitment and Retention Task Force made up of a cross section of UIG staff — from a board member to operations and administration managers to address many issues to include market-based wage analysis, performance review process and develop a variety of policies and procedures that impact our workforce.

To date, this initiative has been a big success, with Battle-Bryant saying she is most proud of their cross-functional taskforce.

All this work has not been without its challenges — the biggest one being acceptance in the field of new processes to recruit and retain people, says Battle-Bryant.

“They can be resistant and can sometimes undermine your efforts, if you are not careful,” she says. “As a result, we have actively partnered with key field management on some of our ideas and projects. If they are a part of the change and approve of the next steps, obviously, there is much broader range of acceptance. The other challenge is the older versus younger generations in the workplace. There are many opportunities in the future for addressing generational differences.”

In early 2015, the Wisconsin Operating Engineers identified workforce development as a critical issue they needed to help contractors address. It found the primary reasons contractors experienced a lack of young people entering the skilled trades were four-fold:

  • Elimination or reduction of high school CTE programs.
  • College-for-all mentality of the K-12 system.
  • Dwindling number of
    family farms.
  • Aging Wisconsin population.

The primary initiative the Wisconsin Operating Engineers launched was with Destinations Career Academy (DCA), an online pre-apprenticeship program available to high school students interested in the operating engineers career path.

“It’s the only program in the country that allows high school students to begin operating engineer apprentice coursework while in high school,” explains Terry McGowan, president of the Wisconsin Operating Engineers. “For many reasons, heavy equipment operation has never been taught in high schools. This innovative public charter school allows the student to remain a full-time student in their home district, while taking up to four online courses that earn high school CTE credit, technical college credit and complete curriculum required of first-year apprentices.”

Construction Business Group (CBG) is the labor-management organization for contractors that is signatory to the Wisconsin Operating Engineers. The board, comprised of four management trustees (all AGC members) and four labor trustees, focuses on promoting and protecting the construction industry. CBG’s board oversees workforce outreach efforts, including DCA’s pre-apprenticeship program.

“Laura Cataldo, co-chair of AGC’s Industry Recruiting Taskforce and manager of construction consulting services at Baker Tilly, a member of multiple AGC chapters, works with the unified labor-management board in implementing innovative workforce development strategies that are gaining national attention,” says McGowan.

Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP is a full-service accounting and advisory firm that offers industry-specialized services in audit, tax and management consulting and is a big supporter of DCA’s pre-apprenticeship program.

To drive interest to a career as an operating engineer, the Wisconsin Operating Engineers host an externship for students, educators and parents twice a year, where guests have the opportunity to:

  • Tour the training center, including the indoor training arena.
  • Test their skill on equipment simulators.
  • Gain hands-on experience with mini-excavators.
  • Learn about apprenticeship opportunities.
  • Interact with current apprentices and operators.
  • Hear from employers about opportunities that exist and what they are seeking in employees.

“In April, we hosted our third externship day and had over 400 guests from 50 school districts in attendance,” recalls McGowan. “This event has been critical in growing the innovative new pre-apprenticeship program. The pre-apprenticeship program enrolled its first eight students from two districts in the fall of 2016. This spring, after only four semesters, there are 51 students from 16 districts enrolled.”

He says the biggest challenge of this initiative was getting information on the pre-apprenticeship program to the 464 school districts in the state.

“There is no mailing list or official communication tool available to us. In order to meet this challenge, we utilized a number of strategies to connect with districts that included speaking at educator conferences, social media, radio and TV ads, having a physical presence at the WIAA high school basketball tournament, and grassroots efforts,” says McGowan.

A global engineering, procurement, fabrication, construction and maintenance company that designs, builds and maintains capital-efficient facilities for its clients on six continents, Fluor Corporation established its U.S. Gulf Coast Craft Training Center in Pasadena, Texas, in 2015. The Center offers tuition-free, pre-employment training in the welding, electrical, instrumentation, millwright and pipefitting disciplines.

“The 12-week courses are based on NCCER’s industry-leading curriculum and are taught by experienced professionals utilizing a combination of both classroom and hands-on delivery,” explains Mark Truchan, global director, craft services for Fluor Corporation. Fluor is an AGC of Texas Highway, Heavy, Utilities and Industrial Branch and TEXO member.

Fluor’s U.S. Gulf Coast Craft Training Center graduates approximately 300 students per year, greatly strengthening the pipeline of skilled construction talent to meet current industry demands, as well as future needs.

“As a program committed to providing a comprehensive approach to training and development, graduates are seen as ‘preferred recruits’ by Fluor’s craft recruiters, as well as recruiters for other companies,” he explains. “Craft superintendents and foremen have found these graduates very well trained and prepared to be productive as soon as they are on the jobsite.”

In addition to hands-on, technical training, Fluor also provides more than 40 hours of instructor-led training in employability skills development to help foster healthy attitudes toward construction careers. Topics addressed as part of this curriculum include: teamwork, giving and receiving criticism, sexual harassment and diversity training, conflict resolution and managing your career.

“Across the industrial construction industry, there remains a shortage of skilled craft workers to meet current and future demands,” says Truchan. “With our training center, Fluor’s key objective is to make a long-term investment in the industry by helping to build and strengthen the pipeline of skilled craft professionals equipped to tackle current and future work in one of the country’s most active regions — the U.S. Gulf Coast.”

To date, Fluor’s U.S. Gulf Coast Craft Training Center has been a success. Since inception, more than 530 students have graduated from the program — many going on to work for Fluor on projects in the Gulf Coast and southeastern United States.

“Upon graduation, students have received 480 hours of instructor-led training and guided practice, earning NCCER credentials for the core curriculum plus Levels 1 and 2 of their respective trade,” says Truchan. “We’re especially proud to note that overall 70 to 80 percent of graduates have remained in the Gulf Coast region and are still working in their respective trades.”

Mark Drury is vice president of business development at Shapiro & Duncan, a third-generation family company based in Rockville, Maryland, that provides cutting-edge mechanical engineering and construction solutions — including design-build, fabrication, installation and maintenance services that promote sustainability at every stage of a building’s life cycle.

Shapiro & Duncan, an AGC of Metropolitan Washington D.C. member, has been involved in workforce development formally and aggressively since 1998 with their initiatives.

“The reason we [became involved] is that we saw public education not exposing kids to hands on trades,” says Drury.

“In fact, they were eliminating programs — wood shop, metal shop and automobile shop have disappeared from the high schools,” he says. “And vocational became the longer four-letter word in education. People didn’t like that word, so they got rid of it. There was a misplaced belief that technology was going to replace labor. We didn’t see that panning out, and it hasn’t panned out.”

And although Shapiro & Duncan has been involved in workforce development for two decades, and it has been successful, he says, it’s not as successful as it needs to be.

“Over the years, we have developed a lot of great relationships in the community and school system. We’ve brought a lot of young people into our business and industry by exposing them to the opportunities and what there is to offer. Is it making a big enough dent in the overall industry needs? No, but we’ve been in the trenches for 20 years,” says Drury.

He says that during the Obama presidency, the $100 million that was put toward the apprenticeship initiative and training was certainly a step in the right direction.

“The conversation has become more open,” he says. “Apprenticeship is being talked about at the national and state levels and is being seen as an opportunity to provide careers — from construction to biomedical.”

In getting the word out, the Shapiro & Duncan team regularly go to elementary, middle and high schools any time there is a career day. They also conduct presentations about different careers in construction to expose students to all the different roles that are available.

“There’s a lot of misconception about what construction is about. It’s a huge image problem,” Drury says. “Unfortunately, too many kids go to college because that’s what’s expected of them. [They need to know that] construction is not a dead end. There’s always more to learn for those who want that opportunity.”

And when it comes to getting more women into the field, until the industry can attract more women, Drury will always find it frustrating.

“I’m a big proponent of integrated project delivery and design-build,” he says. “The teamwork that is involved in that does not fit the male psyche the way it does the female psyche. I keep telling women that until we get you to a critical mass of 28 to 30 percent, and start making serious policy changes, we’re not going to be where we need to be. My goal is that it would be 50 percent across the board — in the boardroom, on the jobsite and in the office.”

As a giant in the industry and a self-performing builder, McCarthy Building Companies, a member of multiple AGC chapters, has always been focused on training and development. Its workforce development program was formalized in 2014 to expand efforts to recruit, train and engage its craft professionals and also to support the many industry efforts underway.

“As one of the top employers of craft professionals in the country, we believe it is our obligation to take an active role in getting more people involved in great construction careers,” says R.J. Morris, director of talent acquisition and management for McCarthy.

“Our company’s top leadership, including our CEO, COO, executive vice president of human resources and multiple operational leaders have fully sponsored and supported this program. Our goal is to drive progress in developing the craft workforce needed for the future.”

McCarthy’s workforce development program has been quite successful to date. It has a full-time dedicated staff that focuses on three areas — recruiting, training and engaging its craft partners.

“We are also proud that our company is a community leader in outreach programs, including meeting with students, faculty, parents, community leaders and military transition personnel to explain to them the value of a career as a craft professional,” says Morris. “In the first half of 2018, we will have attended nearly 50 formal outreach events.”

He says the biggest challenge of this initiative has been in prioritizing the work and ensuring that McCarthy has an industry-wide impact that works in tandem with other industry efforts.

“For example, we need to ensure we have great training programs developed to help this new group of inexperienced, but passionate, construction professionals be successful. We can’t sell people on a career in construction and then expect them to know everything. To that end, we are focused on ensuring that we set people up to succeed. This takes a deliberate, hands-on training approach. We have even transitioned some of our career superintendents to become full-time craft trainers to help support this work.”

He acknowledges how much workforce development has changed in just the past 20 years where “a contractor might put up a construction trailer, put up a fence and then wait for applicants to show up. Those days are gone.”

Today, it’s important to understand that all contractors have a role to play to address this industry-wide issue.

“In this extremely tight labor market, with demographics working against us, we are all responsible for implementing recruiting, training and engagement programs to build a strong, skilled craft workforce.”

The Academy for Career Education High School first opened its doors in Reno, Nevada in 2002 as a result of a partnership between local educators and the Nevada Chapter AGC to create a charter construction school. Originally ACE offered an advanced building trades program only.

“Existing programs were limited in traditional public schools combined with little interest by the local school district to pursue expansion in the construction education area,” says ACE Director Leigh Berdrow.

“We saw the need in the workforce and we had interest from students, but there wasn’t a program available to marry the two effectively. Thus, ACE was born — a comprehensive high school focusing on industry training combined with traditional academic subjects.”

Students major in one of four programs: Building Trades, Diesel Technology, Architectural Drafting, Technical Drafting and Advanced Machining and Manufacturing. In each program, students earn industry certifications, college credit at the local community college, and a CTE endorsement on their high school diploma.

“ACE students graduate job-ready with the knowledge that continuing education and skill development is important for success,” says Berdrow. “Students see the benefits of their work immediately and have the desire to keep improving. And some students graduate from community college and ACE at the same time!”

ACE High School has been a great success. The numbers don’t lie.

“We boast the highest graduation rate in our area averaging between 93 to 96 percent in the last three years,” says Berdrow. “Nevada’s graduation rate is 73.5 percent and the local district’s rate is 84 percent. We have more jobs lined up than students to fill them, and our students are graduating with certifications from community college in welding, HVAC, diesel tech, and CNC operation. Last year, ACE students earned more than 1,400 credits for free! That is more than $140,000 in savings.”

To date, more than 450 students have graduated from ACE in the last 15 years, with the majority of these graduates working in the industry.

“We are proud to see graduates come back as skilled journeymen, architects, engineers and work with our current student body on a variety of projects. Currently every eligible student at ACE who wants employment is working before they graduate from high school. We could do more, if we could get more students.”

While the numbers are impressive, there have definitely been challenges.

“We are the lowest funded school in the state,” says Berdrow. “We do not receive any funding for facilities, so our $90,000 annual rent cost comes directly out of our operating budget. Our biggest challenge is that we receive absolutely zero dollars for transportation services resulting in an equity disparity in our community. Students who can secure their own transportation to and from ACE are the only students who can attend. We offer bus passes to students, but our public transportation is limited. Students who do not have the means, or who live outside of public transportation, cannot take advantage of the ACE programs ultimately denying them beneficial education and employment opportunities.”

Undeterred, the ACE team is continually developing creative solutions to solve this challenge.

“We have offered to partner with them by providing payment for transportation services to get students to ACE. Unfortunately, this option was not successful. Currently, we are researching partnerships with UBER Teen, other providers including Boys and Girls Clubs, and private entities to solve this challenge. We are interested to learn about creative ways others have solved similar dilemmas or grant/donations opportunities that could assist us well.”

Berdrow is pleased that in recent years the “college-for-all” pendulum has started to swing back to “skilled training for all.”

“This is critical to build more programs, such as ACE, and more importantly let students know that these are honorable, great paying, careers and encourage them to choose this path with excitement and pride. The message is starting to change and that’s good for all of us.”    ◆

AGC’S 2018 CONSTRUCTION HR & TRAINING PROFESSIONALS CONFERENCE: Explore more innovative workforce development solutions at AGC’s 2018 Construction HR & Training Professionals Conference to be held October 10-12, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. For more information on the conference, including a panel discussion moderated by NCCER, visit http://meetings.agc.org/hrted/.