Building Tomorrows, Cities, AGC Trade on Skills

Sadly, most of the U.S. knows that the City of Chicago this spring is mired in a prolonged period of gun violence in poorer neighborhoods that likely would have caused even Al Capone to steer clear.

At the same time, the construction industry in Chicago, and across the U.S., desperately needs skilled labor. So, enter logic. With so many at-risk youths in Chicago also in need of career paths that offer an alternative to gangs, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has unveiled plans to convert a vocational high school on the city’s south side into a facility solely devoted to training youth for the construction trades. That simple idea seems as smart as it is overdue, and cities across the U.S. should take note.

Emanuel announced at an April 25 press conference that the struggling Dunbar Vocational Career Academy will return to its pre-World War II roots to become the new Construction Trades Campus at Dunbar. As planned, the remade Dunbar facility will serve as a “city wide” hub to prepare students for careers in general construction, carpentry, heating, ventilating, air conditioning, welding, and electrical contracting. However, Dunbar will give “preference” to applicants from the surrounding community.

“If you graduate from a high school & you have a tomorrow you’re thinking about, you’re not going to do something stupid today”

— Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

“If you graduate from a high school and you have a tomorrow you’re thinking about, you’re not going to do something stupid today,” said Emanuel, surrounded by union leaders, local pols and even some high school students. “A skill, an education, a training gives you a tomorrow to live for.”

The two-year program will include guidance from local construction firms and trade unions, including the Regional Council of Carpenters, IBEW 134, the Laborers District Council, and Pipefitters Local 597. Upon completion, graduates will possess “the requisite skills to pursue paths such as apprenticeships, post-secondary education, certification programs, or a living-wage job,” according to a press release.

It’s an initiative whose time has come.

No doubt there are others like it elsewhere, but apparently not yet in quantities sufficient to bridge U.S. construction’s growing skilled labor gap. True, construction unemployment has declined to as low as 6%, but the industry today is drawing from a vastly shrunken pool of workers. AEC industry leaders like Associated General Contractors of America CEO Stephen Sandherr have been beating the drum to replenish the depleted ranks of qualified trades since 2013, when construction began to rebound from protracted recession. At the economic downturn’s height, countless tradesmen just dropped out of this industry for lack of work. Many defected to the energy sector, and have not returned.

Meanwhile, older tradesmen have either retired or drawn closer to that age, foreshadowing a gap in skills and experience that worry many, especially since so many next-generation prospects seemingly don’t regard construction as a viable or desirable career choice. Of course, the more tech-engaged AEC firms become, the more attractive they will appear to this demographic.

“If your company doesn’t know how to use social media, or just doesn’t believe it can help, then you need to rethink your recruitment strategy,” says Andy Jansen, co-founder of Hard Hat Hub, an industry job search engine. “We recently ran a national social media campaign for a rail contractor that was looking to make several hires. In just weeks, it generated 830 online profiles and led to seven new hires.”

Got skills?

Of course, if the national talent pool is still lacking certain skills, that is a separate but equal problem. Released in 2014, AGC’s Workforce Development Plan, a document dedicated to cultivating skilled construction workers, noted that “the dismantling of the public vocational and technical education programs, declining participation in union apprenticeship training, and an increasing focus on college preparatory programs at the high school level.”

The document urges national, state and local officials to adopt numerous measures to promote careers in construction, from immigration reform, to targeted legislation at state and local levels to establish public schools focused on career and technical education. In Portland OR, for example, AGC says its chapter-supported charter school program has proven highly successful. Similarly, chapters in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and elsewhere also have established aggressive, “Go Build” recruiting programs.

AGC Workforce Shortage Report, December 2014.

All good news, but much more is needed. Construction labor shortages are becoming even more acute as the national recovery accelerates. Another recent AGC survey of its national contractor members found that 70% of respondents indicated difficulty in finding either salaried or craft professionals. Nearly as many of them predicted that labor conditions would remain tight or worsen this year.

As a result, last month, some 25 industry groups, from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association and American Institute of Steel Construction, to Associated Equipment Distributors and the Portland Cement Association, co-authored an urgent letter to U.S. House and Senate leaders, calling for bipartisan action to reauthorize the expired Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 2006. “The undersigned organizations, representing a broad cross section of construction contractor, supplier, and labor organizations, urge you to make career technical education a top legislative priority this year,” read the April 18 communication.

“The undersigned organizations, representing a broad cross section of construction contractor, supplier, and labor organizations, urge you to make career technical education a top legislative priority this year”

— Letter to Congress, April 18, 2016

Specifically, the Perkins Act was a federal program originally intended to promote “increased emphasis on the academic achievement of career and technical education students, strengthen the connections between secondary and post-secondary education, and improve state and local accountability,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Education.

Of course, requests of this type often get lost in Washington among the clutter of so many other political and legislative issues, especially during an election year. Or, to take a more cynical view, the labor issue simply may not be a priority in Washington right now. Which really means such efforts may require bottom-up, grassroots strategizing, as some local AGC chapters and others already are attempting.

Earlier this month, the trade group’s national office launched the AGC Career Center, an online service to help front-line laborers find jobs. “With labor shortages likely to get even more severe, we want to do everything possible to connect qualified workers with firms looking to expand,” Sandherr noted in a statement.

Nice, but portals alone won’t solve the problem. Firms, chapters, local unions all need to more vigorously pursue grassroots efforts in to prompt action from policy makers and prospective industry members alike. And they need to do so in a coordinated, collaborative manner. In addition to demonstrating to high school students the potential construction holds for a meaningful, satisfying and well-paying careers via job fairs, school visits, site visits and discussions with industry veterans, this industry just needs to do a better job of connecting – or reconnecting – the dots for legislators who appear to have forgotten the historic link between a thriving skilled labor force and a robust economy.

So,  spell it out to policy makers. And work with local chapters and shops on campaigns that engage and excite America’s youth. Seek out former tradesmen who migrated to other industries when construction unemployment soared past 25% and lure them back. Leverage social media across all channels.

Meantime, kudos to Rahm Emanuel and Chicago. The new Campus Trades Campus is a nice first step for a city with deep roots in this industry. But let’s hope the move is just the first of many across the U.S.