AGC will seek more training for construction workers

Teya Vitu//November 16, 2017

AGC will seek more training for construction workers

Teya Vitu//November 16, 2017

Construction workers on a scaffold.
Construction workers on a scaffold. Idaho, Boise and Lewiston have all led the nation in construction job growth at different times in the last year. File photo

Idaho as a state and Boise and Lewiston as metro areas have led the nation in construction job growth at various points in the past year, and the state overall added 7,000 construction jobs in the past three years to provide the manpower for surging growth.

Yet Idaho still falls about 8,000 workers short of its all-time high of 52,800 construction workers in February 2007, just as the national economic collapse surfaced. Construction jobs in Idaho ultimately deflated to 29,600 in March 2011.

Wayne Hammon maintains that Idaho right now could have more construction workers than the February 2007 peak – if only qualified construction workers were available to hire.

Hammon, executive director of the Idaho Associated General Contractors, said finding qualified workers is the industry’s Achilles’ heel, locally and nationally. He will lobby the Idaho Legislature in the coming session to enable the Idaho Department of Labor to offer broader job training programs for potential construction workers.

Associated General Contractors of America, the parent organization of Idaho AGC, notes the number of construction jobs in America and Idaho is the highest since 2008. But the traditional pipeline for workers through high school shop classes and vocational schools has largely disappeared.

“The greatest challenge is finding qualified workers,” AGC CEO Stephen Sandherr said. “The five toughest crafts to fill are carpenter, concrete, bricklayer, electrician and plumber.”

“We have a lot of people working on this,” Hammon said about addressing this in Idaho. “There are lots of sections of the pipeline that are not connected as a pipeline. We have Idaho State University offering electrician certification. None of the hours (students) spend at ISU count toward an apprenticeship. These programs ought to be better coordinated. The pieces are all there. We just have to get them put together.”

Idaho is by no means alone. The national AGC on Aug. 29 had a national conference call with several industry leaders saying that the process of filling construction jobs is in crisis mode.

“It’s the quality of the people that’s the problem,” said Sean Ray, workforce development manager at Sundt Construction, among Arizona’s largest construction companies. “We can hire people all day. We have people coming to the job site that aren’t even sure how to hold a hammer.”

Community colleges are key to training construction workers

Ray has collaborated with Central Arizona College, a community college just south of Phoenix, to reshape a residential construction program into two programs for industrial and concrete construction tailored specifically for Sundt’s needs.

This has created a one-year, 30-credit course, offered for the first time this fall, where graduates qualify for a job at Sundt, said Kristen Benedict, chair of advanced technology at Central Arizona College.

“When Sundt came to us, we understood their company mentality,” Benedict said. ”Sundt was instrumental in working with us for the course work. They get the opportunity to vet the students first.”

CAC has 106 students enrolled in its construction, heavy equipment and welding programs that are all designed to have certificate holders job-ready. The college is working with Northern Arizona University to create a bachelor’s degree in industrial management with 90 units from CAC and 30 units in online coursework with NAU, Benedict said.

“For years in the past, being academics, we always thought we knew what industry wanted instead of sitting back and letting industry tell us what needs to be in a certificate,” Benedict said.

Western States Equipment Company, a Caterpillar dealer in Meridian, is the only business so far to collaborate directly with the College of Western Idaho to provide diesel technician certificates and associates degrees specifically designed to meet Western States’ needs. With CWI only nine years old, the college is still feeling its way in establishing certificate programs based specifically on employer needs, said Mark Browning, CWI’s vice president of communications.

“We have a responsibility to fix that pipeline,” Browning said. “We’re looking at everything every day.”

The big push at CWI is reinventing the standard two-year community college model to better fit in a work world that can’t wait two years for certificated workers, he said.

“The day is coming when we won’t brand ourselves as a two-year institution,” Browning said. “We are trying to expand and condense every program (in construction fields).”

CWI wants to apply this philosophy to offer certification programs in 13 to 15 months in other fields such as engineering and nursing, Browning said.

The challenge is finding construction companies to partner with CWI, Hammon said.

“It’s not the norm yet,” Hammon said. “We’ve talked to CWI and the new college at Idaho Falls (College of Eastern Idaho). We’re trying to figure out how it would fit into their programs and how much it costs.”

Hammon is looking at the Construction Careers Now program established in 2016 by the Colorado Contractors Association (CCA), the Hispanic Contractors of Colorado and the Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver. The four-week program is a free orientation for construction careers that includes a hiring fair with construction companies.

“I’d love to go to the Legislature this winter and say, ‘here’s a successful program in the curriculum in Colorado and we can make it work in Idaho,’” Hammon said. “What I’m talking about is designing a program that at the end of it there is a job waiting for me.”

The construction industry finds itself in a perfect storm to find willing, let alone qualified, construction workers. Job training is only part of the challenge.

Neil Nelson
Neil Nelson

“It’s generational, having problems filling those positions,” said Neil Nelson, president at ESI Construction in Meridian, the general contractor for many of the Treasure Valley’s largest projects. “There are less millennials wanting to go into construction.”

Hammon hopes swiftly increasing wages in the construction trades will better attract the younger generations.

“All across Idaho we are seeing the value of talent rising rapidly,” Hammon said. “Skilled craft workers might have been making only $4 an hour in 2015, but are now commanding more than triple that amount. In addition, unskilled general laborers are now being paid almost twice the federal minimum wage.”

State labor programs can also get people ready for construction careers

One avenue to introduce and prepare people for construction careers is through the Idaho Department of Labor, Hammon said.

Hammon’s Idaho AGC collaborated with Labor in 2016 to offer Building Our Future, a six-week introduction to construction for at-risk young adults aged 18 to 24. It was limited to a single session because it was funded by a federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Grant.

Hammon said 20 students applied, 18 showed up, 16 finished the program and all but one got job offers from the 15 construction companies Hammon lined up to participate in Building Our Future.

“That’s a really nice piece of pipeline that worked for 15 companies,” Hammon said. “I probably have 45 other companies that would like to do this.”

Because of the federal grant, Building Our Future was limited to high-school dropouts or aging-out foster children, said Derek Harris, regional manager for Labor’s Region 3 West.

“Labor can play a definite role (in training future construction workers) but we would have to have industry support,” Harris said. “The real challenge is just getting kids to see construction is a good field to go into and give it a shot.”

Hammon wants to send that message to the Legislature to draw more state funding to train construction workers.

“We are actively working on legislation for the upcoming session that would authorize actions like this on an ongoing basis,” Hammon said. “The program Idaho Labor did as a pilot was targeted specifically to the population they identified. The program we are exploring with the community colleges would be open to any Idaho resident.”

The Idaho Department of Labor has also offered registered apprenticeships since 1937, but in recent times participation didn’t increase substantially until October 2016. Since then, Labor has registered 416 apprentices in all fields with 300 of them in the construction trades, said John Russ, Labor’s area manager for the southwest area.

“Our goal is to have as many as we can as quickly as we can,” Russ said. “At least people can get in and earn while they learn.”

Labor administers the apprenticeships and participating companies decide the education component, whether it’s online, a vendor, College of Western Idaho or Boise State University, Russ said.

“It’s all dependent on the employer,” he said

The paid apprenticeships can last one to four years. Completion of an apprenticeship qualifies graduates for a job.

“Apprenticeships are an important piece of the training puzzle,” Hammon said.“However, with Idaho’s desperate need for construction workers, we can’t wait for apprentices to be ready.”