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Westside Works graduation: (Left to right) Rev. Howard Beckham, Eric Whaley, Scott Shelar (CEFGA), Johnny Hughes (instructor)
Westside Works graduation: (Left to right) Rev. Howard Beckham, Eric Whaley, Scott Shelar (CEFGA), Johnny Hughes (instructor)
June 18, 2015 12:00 PM CDT

Bridging the local skills gap

Contractors look to recruit skilled workers in local neighborhoods


As construction starts continue to increase and the skilled workforce shortage deepens, contractors are facing an uphill battle to meet demand. Of more than 1,000 U.S. construction firms surveyed by The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), 83 percent report having a hard time filling craft professional positions. However, the construction industry’s need for workers is expected to grow twice as fast as the average for all industries, all while facing a workforce shortage of 2 million workers by 2018. A shortage like this will ultimately cause schedule delays and increase construction costs. After a difficult recession, contractors do not want to miss out on opportunities presented during the recovery. While many contractors are looking far and wide to recruit skilled workers, some are looking within the local neighborhoods surrounding their projects.

Rebuilding Atlanta’s westside

Downtown Atlanta is currently undergoing a makeover in more ways than one. Contractors in the area are diligently working to build both a world-class football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons and a world-class construction workforce. This summer, the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA) partnered with the Arthur Blank Family Foundation to operate a workforce development center called Westside Works.

The new $1.2 billion, football/soccer stadium is being built by Home Depot co-founder and Atlanta Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank. In addition to building a new stadium, Blank made a very public commitment to transform the communities around the stadium site. The communities, known as Vine City, English Avenue and Castleberry Hill, have some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation. With construction companies struggling to find skilled workers, and entire communities struggling to find adequate employment, CEFGA and the Blank Foundation saw a win-win opportunity.

“Graduates are almost guaranteed to receive offers from employers for relatively high-paying jobs.”

CEFGA worked with training partner and NCCER Accredited Training Sponsor HB NEXT, a group of contractors in downtown Atlanta and trade associations like AGC Georgia to develop a construction training program specifically for Westside Works. The result was a 160-hour entry-level training program that features CPR/first-aid certification and NCCER’s Core Curriculum, which includes the OSHA 10-hour training class and soft skills training. Prior to trainee graduation, Westside Works hosts a hiring fair with representatives from local construction firms in attendance. Prospective graduates select their top employer choices, and employers select their top graduates. On graduation day, trainees receive a plaque, graduation certificate, and find out where they will be working. Graduates are almost guaranteed to receive offers from employers for relatively high-paying jobs.

In addition to receiving full-time jobs in the construction industry, all the graduates also earn NCCER credentials. The first class of Westside Works had 14 trainees graduate, and the second class had 13 graduate with 47 job openings available. The plan for the program is to graduate 14 to 16 students every six weeks and place them in jobs. There is currently a backlog of 60 students waiting to enter the program. Organizers would ideally like to have at least two Westside Works training classes take place simultaneously to meet the growing demand for more entry-level construction workers. CEFGA hopes to place at least 100 men and women into jobs within Westside Works’ inaugural year.

Manufacturing skilled workers in Michigan

The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) Greater Michigan Chapter in Midland, Michigan, has developed two training programs for local inner city and rural high school students as a means to develop the community’s workforce. Jumpstart and HIRE were developed to introduce students to in-demand craft professions at the Dow Chemical Company’s chemical processing and manufacturing plant in Midland.

Jumpstart is a summer program held at the ABC chapter for high school students to determine if a career as a craft professional is a good fit for them. Five to six different crafts are taught Monday through Friday for three hours a day. If a student becomes interested in a craft, then he or she can enter the HIRE program.

“We are looking for desire – someone who really wants it,” said Jimmy Greene, president and CEO of ABC Greater Michigan Chapter. “There is a learning curve, and the summer program weeds out a lot of trainees. It’s not a bad thing when people drop out of the program, because we only want the ones who are really interested. The trainees will develop their skills and continue to advance as a result of their desire. They will eventually pick up on subjects like trigonometry because they understand how it relates to their profession and why they need it. We also encourage trainees to have confidence and pride in themselves and their profession.”

Under the direction of Kevin Gregory at HIRE, high school students learn soft skills and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) through NCCER Core Curriculum. Through the schools’ career and technical education program, there are about 20 to 25 students who attend the eight-week program two days a week for three hours each day at the ABC chapter. Students complete NCCER Core modules and receive NCCER credentials upon successful completion of the curriculum. In their last semester of high school, students learn NCCER Level 1 for the craft that they have chosen: electrical, insulating, carpentry or HVAC. After completing the program and graduating from high school, trainees are ready to begin their careers. HIRE encourages students to pursue craft professions, and it offers direct pathways into careers at either Dow or with contractors in Midland.

The ABC Greater Michigan Chapter offers a large pipeline of skilled workers, man power and minority employment to Dow because of its comprehensive training process. In return, Dow sponsors the chapter with donations of electrical instrumentation equipment for training. Dow prefers to hire NCCER-trained employees, so it is a win-win for everyone involved and most importantly, the community.

HIRE creates opportunity without economic barriers because it is funded by ABC and is free for trainees. The program supplies 1 million man hours to Dow and within the communities surrounding Midland. Programs like this drive economic development in communities and also develop the tax base. They are an investment because skilled craft professionals live and work in the community, which drives the economy and creates a vibrant community.

“Sometimes you have to go to where the people are, and often times that is the inner city or rural areas of a community,” said Greene. “It is critical to provide access to those who have the desire to work. Some people don’t understand the benefits and high wages of skilled crafts. Our industry needs to do a better job of finding people who want to work. It’s not about sitting in an office and saying we need to recruit. It’s about actually getting up, and going into these areas and reaching these people.”

Jumpstarting Baltimore’s construction workforce

In an effort to help fill the skills gap within the city of Baltimore, the ABC Baltimore Metro Chapter created a program called Project JumpStart. Although the names are similar, this program’s approach is a little different. They identify new, local projects and work with the contractors who have been awarded those projects to place trainee graduates in open positions.

Project JumpStart is a three-month, 87-hour, pre-apprenticeship training program that provides classroom and hands-on training to low-income and inner-city Baltimore residents who have high school diplomas. Most of the program’s applicants are either underemployed or unemployed, but because they must compete to get in the program they are very motivated to learn and work. “Our industry needs to do a better job of finding people who want to work. It’s not about sitting in an office and saying we need to recruit. It’s about actually getting up, and going into these areas and reaching these people.” Once in the program, trainees learn first aid, CPR and NCCER’s Core Curriculum, which includes the OSHA 10-hour training class. They achieve an understanding of basic construction skills and a sense of the dedication and commitment it takes to be an apprentice.

Project JumpStart conducts all the screening, training and placement of trainees, so contractors can trust the quality of the people they hire from the program. The program places about 75 percent of trainees with contractors in the area. JumpStart graduates enter the construction industry on a career track that will help them advance beyond just entry level. After being placed with an employer, many graduates choose to enter into an apprenticeship program. This fall, 16 graduates entered apprenticeship programs for sheet metal, carpentry, plumbing and electrical.

“Project JumpStart is a small, but amazing solution to finding skilled workers in our area,” said Kate McShane, placement director for Project JumpStart. “Some people think that no one wants to work construction anymore, but our trainees want to. Those who were left out of the construction boom are often forgotten, and these individuals have the desire to work. We can help close the skills gap locally by getting highly motivated individuals into the skilled pipeline.”

The ABC Baltimore Metro Chapter was aware of the lack of skilled workers in the area, which is, in part, why Project JumpStart was created. The program also ties the chapter to the community and helps improve the quality of life for residents. In addition, contractors benefit because they receive a pipeline of highly motivated and skilled individuals.

“With the need to build a pipeline of skilled employees, this is one viable solution,” said McShane. “We don’t need to convince our trainees that construction is a great career choice. They already know that and want to be here. If we want a skilled workforce, let’s not overlook the underemployed or unemployed in our cities. There’s a lot of talent there, and I don’t believe many people think about that.”

Tackling workforce shortages at the state level

Louisiana is experiencing significant industrial construction growth, spurred by the low cost of natural gas and an overall improved business climate. This has attracted numerous large new businesses and unprecedented investments in new plants and expansions, including a $21 billion gas-to-liquid conversion plant. As a result, Louisiana will need 86,000 skilled craft workers by 2016 due to industry growth and employee attrition.

Fortunately, Louisiana foresaw some of this coming and in 2008 the Louisiana Workforce Commission (LWC), formerly Louisiana’s Department of Labor, and the Louisiana Workforce Investment Council (LWIC) were formed as part of Governor Bobby Jindal’s workforce development reform. Both groups are committed to employment strategies for Louisiana citizens. The idea is for the state to not only look at employment forecasts, but to implement a strategic plan to coordinate and integrate a comprehensive workforce development delivery system.

An important factor in making this happen was collaboration between state agencies, industry and education. LWIC formed the Craft Task Force, which brought together industry, various state agencies, high schools, technical colleges and private training providers. The Craft Task Force decided that career and technical education (CTE) needed to be based on standardized curricula. Industry then determined that NCCER credentials were ideal, so the technical colleges agreed to focus on short-term, compressed NCCER training for students, particularly Levels 1 and 2 in the highest- demand skilled crafts occupations such as electrician, carpentry, millwright and pipefitter.

Louisiana Community and Technical College System (LCTCS), which is comprised of 13 Louisiana community and technical colleges, and ABC agreed to a memorandum of understanding (MOU). This MOU provides LCTCS members who do not have suitable facilities to conduct CTE classes with access to ABC’s wellequipped facilities. This filled a critical void for the colleges and even allowed for additional dual enrollment opportunities for high school students. In addition, ABC agrees to share craft instructors with LCTCS to help overcome a shortage of qualified instructors.

These groups also realized that the structure at the high school level did not promote students to choose a career in the high-demand areas. Previously, Louisiana required students in eighth grade to select one of three tracks offered: career, basic and university diplomas. In this system, only 1 percent of students selected the career track.

Therefore, the Louisiana Department of Education, along with the industry partners on the LWIC, advocated restructuring how high schools provide CTE offerings on a statewide, legislative level. In 2014, the legislature created two tracks – university and career – and changed the curriculum so that students do not have to pick a track until after their sophomore year. Delaying the track selection allows students to take the same classes for the first two years of high school, which means a student who switches tracks prior to his or her junior year is not behind in their coursework.

A core component of graduating from the new career-oriented track is a requirement to have an industry-based certificate, which allows funding opportunities for the schools. From a state level, each certificate is assigned a point value that directly corresponds to industry’s needs. Schools earn points through graduation rates, as well as how many and what types of certificates their students earn. LWIC prioritizes certificates based on the feedback from industry representatives with input from educators. Certificates on the State Focus List approved by the LWIC receive the highest number of points, and most of NCCER’s certificates are in the highest priority category. Schools earn more funding by increasing the number of points their students obtain.

There are two main benefits to this type of collaboration: 1) students are able to obtain great, high-paying craft careers right out of school, and 2) employers are able to hire qualified, young workers who can be further developed and trained. This allows businesses to hire locally to suit the specific needs of their industry since they have contributed to the development of the area’s workforce. This process helps Louisiana communities grow stronger as businesses hire local craft professionals.

LWIC’s success is the result of bringing together stakeholders who have a vested interest in each other’s success – industry and education. As the craft industry in Louisiana faces a potential shortage of qualified workers and schools are trying to place students into successful, well-paying careers, LWIC is able to facilitate significant legislative changes and long-term collaboration to help make this happen.

What it means for the industry

It can often times be difficult for individuals in rural communities or inner cities to receive the training and education that is required in the construction industry. The value and success of programs such as these are instrumental to developing the local workforce and providing residents with the opportunity to get started in the industry. For unemployed or underemployed residents living near major projects and new construction, it can be frustrating to see that level of progress with no means to be a part of it. It can also be frustrating for young people coming out of school to see growth in their state and find no way to participate in it.

Programs like these are a great way to bridge the local skills gap and connect residents who need training and careers with contractors who need skilled craft professionals. Many national initiatives, such as NCCER’s Build Your Future, provide contractors with recruitment and image enhancement strategies to help them build their local workforce. Louisiana has partnered with Build Your Future to create customized state resources for recruitment that can be distributed through the school systems and on their website. Through skill building, training and job placement, local training programs are a beneficial resource for both groups. They can also help contractors meet local hiring requirements and provide them with trained workers, resulting in a more streamlined hiring process.

With an increasing number of construction projects starting in cities of all sizes and a growing demand for skilled workers, contractors should take a deeper look at ways to help create, develop or support these types of programs.

About the Author

Amy Saxton is the Communications Manager at NCCER.

This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2014 edition of NCCER’s The Cornerstone magazine ( This content has been republished with the permission of NCCER and the publisher.


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