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Filling Boots

BY AMY DREW THOMPSON

There are roughly half a million construction-industry jobs out there, just waiting for craftworkers. AGC and its partners are doing their part by transforming ordinary citizens into superheroes — a vital workforce that can repair and rebuild the nation. And with it, perhaps, the economy.

Talking heads banter about unemployment and politicians reference our “crumbling infrastructure” in speeches crafted to garner favor from the out-of-work masses, but how often are our citizens encouraged to pursue careers in construction, a proud industry whose professionals stand ready to rebuild the nation and re-energize its economy?

It is estimated that the industry (residential and non-residential) will need to add 1.5 million workers to successfully install the volume of work that is expected by 2014. Professionals in AGC and other construction-industry trade associations are keenly aware of the impending skilled labor shortage and are making innovative moves to help close the gap; working together, partnering with educational foundations and visionary companies, creating craft training and apprenticeship programs and even entire schools to promote careers in this dynamic industry all across the nation .

“As the economy rebounds, many construction jobs with excellent salaries will need qualified applicants,” said Don Whyte, president of the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), an education foundation formed in 1996 and developed by more than 125 construction CEOs and industry leaders with the intent to revolutionize training in the construction field. “Our focus is on ensuring that the industry has the resources it will need to meet this skilled workforce shortage during the recovery and beyond.” AGC has been a sponsor of NCCER since its inception.

ALABAMA
“What we’ve done over the years is begin putting pieces in place,” said Bill Caton, director of special projects, Birmingham, and West Section manager, AGC Alabama, “first forming CEFA [the Construction Education Foundation of Alabama] to provide training and work with the community colleges and high schools to provide craft education.”

Later, a major legislative push helped found the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute (ACRI), which oversees the thus-far massively successful Go Build program, a campaign designed to educate young people about the value of learning a trade and ideally, to consider a career in construction. Using advertising, PR and social media — and the formidable charm of Discovery Channel fixture and “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe — Go Build has what Caton calls a “hands-on, in-the-field kind of approach.”

Its interactive website (www.gobuildalabama.com) features detailed videos explaining a multitude of specialized trades and the physical and skill requirements for each. Those who register online can be tracked by AGC, not only providing vital information on those interested in construction careers, but allowing them to be recruited if a member is looking to hire.

With that in place, they began work on AGCHelp, the third leg of Alabama’s pro-construction trinity. “It’s the delivery system for the craftsman,” Caton explained. “We partner with a local employment leasing agency and send them out to job sites.” Right now, it’s just for laborers, but the program collects 50 cents on every hour its members work in the program. “We use that for the continuing education fund in the crafts. [Participants] can pick whatever trade they want and do the training through CEFA.”

ACRI is funded by Alabama members as well. “Contractors pay 15 cents per hour to work in the field at below superintendent level,” Caton explained. “All field labor. The fund collects about $1.75 million a year.” One million dollars of that funds the image campaign. “And that buys a pretty good bit of media. We spent $1 million on market research beforehand, found out what parents and kids liked and didn’t like, what message we need to send — and where to reach them.” Caton said they’re buying ads on Comedy Central and Cartoon Network and sponsoring the widely read annual high-school football preview. This year alone they’ve had 50,000 unique visitors to the site and registered more than 3,000 people.

“It’s a really high-powered campaign,” said Caton. “It’s working. We’re getting a lot of response.”

GEORGIA
“Eight years ago, AGC and other industry organizations understood that we had a worker shortage,” said Cherri Watson. “We were going to work together.” As director, education, safety and workforce development for AGC’s Georgia branch, Watson said it was a slow start; an apprenticeship program they kindled eventually petered out — “there was very little support” — but a more recent undertaking has taken off.

“We had to change the mission,” she said, and working together with CEFGA and the Board of Education they began holding career fairs to promote construction as a vocation. “It started at a fairground and now it’s at a huge convention center.” Watson estimates the most recent, held this spring, had about 6,000 students in attendance. “It’s held in conjunction with Skills USA. Student competitions occur between different trades.” She believes these stem from technical training programs being run in the local high schools.

Additionally, and on the heels of the program’s success in Alabama, Go Build this year expanded into Georgia — again with TV’s Rowe out front as the spokesman. Though conceived in Alabama, founders had always hoped the program would progress regionally and eventually nationally, as the need for skilled craftworkers knows no state lines.

KANSAS CITY
Dr. Joe Pink, education and training director for the Kansas City (Missouri) Chapter, is working hard with his colleagues to replenish and support the industry. They’re currently doing training for nearly a dozen different trades.

“The content for each class differs depending on the program. However, each is required to cover at least 144 to 160 hours of related training, which usually consists of safety, math, print reading, surveying — and so forth.” The rest is spent hands-on. All instructors come from the industry; apprentices must have jobs with signatory contractors or letters of intent.

In addition, the chapter has agreements with Career Technical Education Centers in 47 area high schools, going in to review curriculum and get them accreditated. At 18, graduates enjoy extra credit should they enter the formal apprenticeship program. “Those who exit the as journeymen (or women) will also have earned 30 credit hours that will transfer to a community college should they choose to attend.”

While attendance has been down in recent years, Pink said the craft programs are growing once more. 2012 is looking good and the program’s successes are many. He’s particularly proud of the gains women are making. “Through the efforts of our chapter and our workforce development manager, we’ve emphasized placing women in the crafts.”

COLORADO
Out in the Centennial State, AGC of Colorado Building Chapter formed a coalition with chapters of the American Subcontractors Association (ASA), ABC and the Sheet Metal Contractors Coalition as early as 1986, according to Michael Gifford, executive director of AGC of Colorado Building Chapter. “From day one it was full,” he said. Years later, with the future of the industry at the forefront, chapter members rehabilitated an existing building on the AGC campus.

“Complete with classrooms and laboratories for hands-on learning, it’s still a multi-agency group: the Construction Industry Training Council of Colorado.” Offering apprenticeships in five different crafts: carpentry, electrical, pipefitting, plumbing and sheet metal, “It’s traditional,” he explained. “[Students] have to be on the job and sponsored by a member employer.” Those for whom the drive might be daunting have an online option, as well, for at least part of the program, which takes four years.

SAN DIEGO
They’ve already got a Legoland, so it’s not surprising that the Block Kids Competition, a building contest for kids from kindergarten through sixth grade, has proved a hit with the San Diego locals.  The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC) runs it with support from the AGC— a fun Saturday event with food and prizes that introduces children to the construction industry in a whimsical, positive way. But they don’t stop at grade school.

Then there’s the Junior Achievement Biztown, an event that exposes 150 fifth graders, every day, to construction careers. The AGC Construction Company is one of the business storefronts in Biztown. Students open a construction business and they assemble a park bench to take back to their school. The bench kits are pre-manufactured by the AGC apprentices.

“Back in 1998, we started to plan with San Diego AGC and the AFL-CIO,” said Glenn Hillegas, apprenticeship executive vice president for AGC San Diego Apprenticeship and Training Trust. “Union and management forged a strong partnership … working in unison to create our own public high school.”  The concept grew and Kearny High School’s Stanley E. Foster Construction Tech Academy — which now boasts a student body of 450 — was born.

It was an incredible achievement, but what concerned Hillegas, who has worn the hats of both teacher and principal during his career, was that the best and brightest might head for places like Arizona or CalPoly, as San Diego had no programs available at the university level.  “We couldn’t get homegrown construction engineers.”

AGC’s contractors were motivated, raising millions and creating the J.R. Filanc School of Construction Engineering and Management, named for a local water contractor and major project benefactor.  “What was really cool was that I graduated my first batch of high schoolers in 2006 and some of them were able to go seamlessly into San Diego State, right into the engineering program.”

Additionally, San Diego’s AGC chapter holds fundraisers to raise scholarships, most recently with the Construction Tech Academy where 75 percent of students — most of whom are of color — live at the poverty level.  “We’re happy to be building diversity among the candidates for the university,” said Hillegas, who notes the chapter’s work with NAWIC and WCC (Women’s Construction Coalition) has been producing strong female construction professionals as well.

“[Most people] don’t think about their kids hanging drywall,” he said matter-of-factly.  “They all want their kids to go to university …. We go out and promote the construction engineering program.  They can get into San Diego State, sometimes with a full-ride scholarship.”  He credits the high school with innovative programs that embed industry principles and skills.  “Instead of going from English to math to science, they’ll do projects that integrate the subjects.  They’re also exposed to apprenticeship programs.

“Kids all start out wanting to go to university or be an architect because it sounds sexy,” he notes.  “But what they end up doing — and sometimes it’s even after they’ve gone to college for a year — is come back and ask, ‘Can you tell me about the apprenticeship program again?’”