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In search of more skilled workers

Laurie Kendall Hundreds of apprentices participated in graduation ceremonies this past spring. For many it was the end of a very long journey. They represent the last of a crop of workers who boldly entered the construction industry at its lowest point. They may also provide us insights and solutions to a major challenge that our industry is facing once again – a skilled workforce shortage.

We all know how stable a career choice the construction industry was in the summer and fall of 2010. As thousands of workers exited, some may wonder who in their right mind wanted to join us. Were these people crazy?

Many of the men and women who completed four-year programs weathered some of the toughest times that the industry has ever, and hopefully will ever, see. Thankfully, they took a chance on our industry. They managed to survive, persevere and succeed. And, they are probably stronger for it. They knew that things would get better and they recognized the opportunities that came with the challenges the industry was enduring at the time.

Still, not a day goes by – check that – not an hour goes by where I don’t hear about some form of challenge that a contractor is facing related to finding journey-level workers for a growing number of projects.

Apprenticeship has always been the means to this end. Workforce issues have been a challenge for the industry for much of the past 20 years. Even in the best of times, when apprenticeship programs were turning out large graduating classes, there was trouble keeping up with demand. Today we see the challenges that come with five years of small graduation classes and thousands of workers lost to other industries.

The problem is pretty clear, so what’s the solution? The challenge ahead of our industry is not the output. It is the input.

But it is more than just getting more apprentices into training programs. It’s more than just getting shop classes back into schools. Both are major priorities, but the solution is much bigger. I also need to note that government mandates regarding apprenticeship utilization on projects are also not the solution.

Just as the men and women graduating apprenticeship programs this year adapted and survived to complete their training, the industry needs to be thinking about how apprenticeship should adapt and survive as well. Shifts are taking place as new generations of workers approach their careers. How are we going to respond? An effect response to this reality is the solution.

Research shows that younger, “millennial” generation workers care less about pay and climbing the corporate ladder and are instead drawn to careers where they feel good about what they do. They want to know that they are making a difference in their community. They have also grown up in classroom environments different from past generations of workers to come through apprenticeship. And they have been programmed to believe that a four-year degree and tens of thousands of dollars of debt is their only ticket to success.

Those are big things to overcome. But it can be done.

We must modernize the way we deliver training to address the new and innovative ways younger workers are accustomed to learning. Can we integrate competency models into our training? Can on-demand, online training augment or even supplant some of the traditional classroom training models?

Equally important is helping future generations see the forest through the trees. We must reframe the opportunities that exist. We must expose new generations of workers to the opportunity to build something … to build their community, to build exciting new environments for people to live and work in, and to build the infrastructure that can fuel an innovative economy that solves problems within our society.

As we look to the future and work to solve our workforce challenges, we must confront reality. Today’s apprentices mostly found us. They took a chance, and our industry is reaping that reward. To succeed in the long term, we can’t rely on workers finding us.

Our industry must become relevant to a new generation. We must retool, modernize, and take a chance on them so that they too will take a chance on us.

Laurie Kendall is president of the Associated Builders and Contractors’ Pacific Northwest chapter. Contact her at 503-598-0620 or at lkendall@abcpnw.org

About Laurie Kendall