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Constructing a Skills Gap Solution

Construction and building trades create hands-on initiative to attract students into lucrative careers

Story by Sean Fitzgerald,
New North B2B publisher

Manufacturers have gained substantial ground during the past decade attracting young recruits into careers in skilled positions by highlighting a high-tech environment with good compensation. Often espousing the mantra “this isn’t your grandfather’s manufacturing plant,” industry employment leaders have planted and germinated the seed that manufacturing careers are no longer dirty, unsafe, overly physical dead-end approaches to making a living.

While there’s still work to do in demystifying stereotypes parents of teenagers might hold regarding fruitful careers in manufacturing, it’s clear the needle has moved significantly in northeast Wisconsin in recent years.

The same dynamic might be said for construction trades, which are still mistakenly labeled as being prone to injury, working eight months out of the year while being laid off for the remainder, and not offering a living wage. Just as with four-decade-old stereotypes about manufacturing, the combination of technology, safety and skill levels have evolved to enable highly lucrative careers from the start. Entry-level plumbers and steamfitters in Wisconsin anticipate average annual earnings in excess of $42,000 a year, according to state Department of Workforce Development wage comparisons for 2014, while experienced plumbers can make $78,000 a year and more, particularly if they own their shop.

“These are good paying jobs where a person won’t just make enough to live on, but can make a very nice living with a good pension and good health insurance benefits,” said Ted Gumieny, business development representative for Northeast Wisconsin Building & Construction Trades Council.

Overall, the average age of a construction worker in Wisconsin in their mid-50s, Gumieny said, mostly due to an imbalance between the high number of journeymen and masters skilled trades professionals within five to 10 years of retirement compared with young 20-somethings entering a registered apprenticeship.

Magnifying that challenge is that fact that the average age for most young people entering an apprenticeship program is just a few months shy of 30 years old, said Karen Morgan, director of the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards for Wisconsin DWD. That’s nearly the highest average age of an incoming apprentice during the 23 years Morgan has worked specifically with apprenticeships across the state.

“We rely so much on those skilled journey workers to pass their skills down to the newer apprentices coming up through the industry,” Morgan said in a recent interview with New North B2B magazine. “Wisconsin just does not have the cadre of skilled workers that we’ve had in the past.”

Bringing students to the trades

Efforts at attracting new blood into the construction and building trades are becoming more frequent across the state, and setting their sights on high school students and younger before they commit to a full-time college education immediately after graduation. While an increasing number of parents have pushed their children down the traditional college route for decades now, more and more students are recognizing they can set up a successful career through other paths.

“The nice thing about an apprenticeship is that you earn as you learn,” Gumieny said, noting a four-year apprenticeship can provide a total cumulative package of nearly $250,000 in training, payroll and insurance and pension benefits. That compares to a four-year tuition expense exceeding $100,000 with any other income during that period derived from a paid job outside of studies.

Bringing this message to high school students across the New North region, the New Building & Construction Trades Council – which is made up of more than 30 local labor organizations representing more than 9,000 skilled trades professionals from the region’s construction industry – teamed together with the Labor Management Council of Northeast Wisconsin, school and private building contractors to host a first-of-its-kind “see, touch, feel” experience of 15 different construction skills this past October.

More than 350 students from 10 high schools in the region attended the inaugural Industrial Trades Career Day in Oshkosh this past October, receiving the opportunity to engage in a variety of hands-on construction activities such as building a wall with bricks and mortar, breaking up concrete with a jackhammer, and plumbing together a piping system, among other tasks. The event offered students a chance to explore various career opportunities first hand, said Labor Management Council Director Steve Kovalaske. It was much more engaging than career fairs where students go back to the classroom with a stack of pamphlets, and it helped draw connections between classroom lessons and real world applications.

“You can tell students they need math skills, but they don’t necessarily know why they need it until they see (activities from the event),” said Kovalaske.

For the construction trades, the event served as a means to attract a younger audience to professions in northeast Wisconsin. A similar event is currently being planned for the Green Bay area in October 2016. While an exact date and location haven’t been determined as of yet, organizers hope to make this an annual affair.

Fueling the recruiting pipeline

Bulldozers and backhoes tend to be an attraction to high school students. That was certainly the case during the recent Trades Day event in Oshkosh, where students swarmed toward the booth of Operating Engineers Local 139 to try their hand at seemingly video game-like training simulators. They’re the exact same simulators used by apprentice and journeymen operators when they’re training on downtime away from the job site, said Shane Griesbach, treasurer of Local 139.

“It’s the same type of function that you do with the equipment,” he said, noting the levers and controls lifting a bucket or turning the equipment are the same as in the seat of a bulldozer or crane.

The operators report an average age of 43 years old among its working members in northeast Wisconsin, but attracted 500 new apprentices statewide during the past two years. It’s a good start, but also necessary as the construction industry gains steam.

“With all of these roads that are being built in northeast Wisconsin, it’s our people who are out there running the bulldozers and operating the cranes,” Griesbach said.

The simulators used during the Trades Day event help students relate math and physics lessons to their practical application out on a job site, all without wasting fuel and burning through tires. Setting a smooth grade for a roadbed or hoisting an appropriate, balanced weight on a crane, as examples, requires adept knowledge of math skills, said Don Socha, a business representative with Local 139 who helped orchestrate Trades Day.

“There’s a science to it all,” Socha said. “When you’re loading trucks in a quarry, the faster you can do it and the shorter distance you need to transport the trucks, the more money you’re going to make for the contractor.”

Boon for educators

From the perspective of professional educators, the Trades Day event was perhaps one of the most meaningful initiatives they’ve come across to convey career exploration to students.

“It gives the students reasons why they’re doing the things they are in the classroom,” said Oshkosh Superintendent of Schools Stan Mack II during a January meeting of construction industry professionals in Oshkosh.

Menasha High School has placed particular emphasis on its students’ career exploration efforts and enrollment in youth apprenticeship opportunities. An estimated half of its graduates head directly into the world of work after completing high school, said technology education instructor Kurt Rasmussen, who said 10 students are currently enrolled in youth apprenticeship.

He said the event exposed his students to a variety of careers he couldn’t necessarily illustrate in the classroom.

“I thought it was a fantastic opportunity to get students involved in hands-on activities as opposed to walking around and picking up pamphlets,” said Rasmussen. “It’s nice to be able to connect to what they’re doing in their classes.”

Rasmussen said his students attending the Trades Day event were surprised to learn how many jobs were available in the construction industry right here in northeast Wisconsin. One student was turned on to the bricklaying trade after learning how he might work toward a job in the field.

As a result of the event, Rasmussen made connections with professionals from Miron Construction in Neenah and Menasha-based Faith Technologies who he’s since invited to come speak with students at the schools.

Appleton sent nearly 100 students to the event between North and East high schools, which have a strong track record of exposing students to careers in the trades. The district currently has more than 30 students enrolled in youth apprenticeships, noted Peter Worley, an automotive technician instructor at Appleton East High School and the district’s youth apprenticeship coordinator for technical skills.

“This event has been a great eye opener for the kids to understand what’s out there, and to be able to talk to people who work in the industry everyday,” Worley said. “I had a lot of students coming forward after the event asking how they can get involved.”

Unfortunately, Worley said, opportunities for youth apprenticeship are few and far between, and he has a difficult time placing students interested in pursuing such a career-training opportunity. He said one means of improving subsequent events would be to include more employers who are actively seeking to fill youth apprenticeship slots.

The state Department of Workforce Development’s Morgan said her office recognizes there’s been a shortage of youth apprenticeship opportunities in both manufacturing and construction trades, oftentimes because employers are uncertain about child employment laws and worker’s compensation insurance policies as they relate to employees under the age of 18 years old.

Morgan said her office has been working with DWD’s Equal Rights division to clarify limits and guidelines of the state’s administrative code relative to employment of minors, and has been working with the agency’s worker’s comp division to determine exactly where breakdowns can occur in insuring 16 and 17-year-olds for specific tasks, even those so seemingly nascent as driving a pick-up truck from one job site to another.

Industry provides its perspective

Oshkosh-based construction firm CR Meyer was among the private companies present at the Trades Day event, informing area students about the kinds of trades it employs and the types of projects it builds across northeast Wisconsin and beyond. During the event, the company set up a laser coupling alignment tool used by millwrights, allowing students to operate the equipment, said Kevin Skenandore, the manager of field personnel at CR Meyer.

Skenandore called the event an excellent opportunity to network with high school administrators to showcase alternative careers which make a good living for students who don’t necessarily want to head down the path of college.

“I did speak with a young man from Fond du Lac who stated he was a senior in high school and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He shrugged his shoulders a bit and then I asked him what he liked to do. He replied ‘weld,’” Skenandore said. “I then explained to him that it would be in his best interest to start a pipefitter apprenticeship. I informed him about the gradual pay raises based on hours worked, about how he would earn while he learned, about the insurance plan, the retirement plan, and the fact that once he became a state certified journeyman, that no one could ever take that away from him.”

For Skenandore and CR Meyer, the Trades Day event also enabled a connection with instructors to avail themselves as guests to come into schools and explain construction careers to their students.

Driving apprenticeship for the future

Even Gov. Scott Walker trumpets the importance of apprenticeships to strengthen Wisconsin’s workforce. During his recent State of the State Address in January, Walker highlighted the case that student apprenticeships more than doubled during the past four years, as well as citing a 30 percent increase in adult apprentices during the same period.

In the New North region specifically, construction apprenticeship increased by 15 percent during the past two years, according to data from DWD, including 1,330 new apprenticeships in 2014 and 1,532 from last year. Morgan attributes the growth to economic strength.

“As goes the economy, so goes apprenticeships, because it is a job,” Morgan said.

Sweetening the attraction toward apprenticeships, the state DWD two years ago implemented an apprenticeship completion award program which reimburses apprentices as much as $1,000 for any tuition and textbook expenses associated with their training. But there’s less than $250,000 budgeted toward this program each year, which limits the apprentices who can take advantage of the reimbursement.

Still, these and other incentives are helping grow the awareness of stellar careers in the construction trades, and events such as Trades Day help bring the enjoyment of such careers to life.

“What the students often don’t understand is that a job can be fun,” said the Labor Management Council’s Kovalaske. “If you find that right job, you’ll love it, and you’ll be great.”