Opportunity seems like an empty word in a down-trodden economy, especially for those seeking employment or contemplating careers, and understandably so. But on the horizon looms a shortage of qualified and skilled workers in a number of occupations, including one that cannot be outsourced, provides a good quality of living, and will always be needed in one form or another: construction.
A little over a year ago, we revealed in an issue of iBi that the union construction industry in central Illinois anticipates a shortage of workers in the not-so-distant future, due to an aging workforce that will need to be replaced, an economy that will certainly rebound, aging building stock and infrastructure, and the green building movement. The continued success of the local union construction industry relies heavily upon its ability to attract, recruit and train diverse, qualified and skilled workers. Because of this looming shortage, local building trades and contractors have been working hard to do just that.
Recruitment efforts can be challenging when construction work is booming, let alone when it is slow, as it has been recently. But according to Dana Oaks, executive director of the Greater Peoria Contractors and Suppliers Association, “We need to be cognizant that even though we are in a time of high unemployment for the trades, we cannot relax our recruitment efforts, as the economy will turn around eventually.”
In the past year, the Tri-County Construction Labor-Management Council (TRICON) convened a Labor Shortage Taskforce, which included industry representatives, education leaders and other community members, to provide input on new strategies for building a diverse and skilled workforce for union construction. While the work of that taskforce is far from complete, some new ideas are already being implemented. For example, by early spring, visitors to an updated Better Built website (better-built.us) will be able to access construction career information and new resources, like sample construction math and a listing of area training programs. Many members of the community simply aren’t aware of construction career opportunities and the skills required to be successful, something the new web portal and increased outreach efforts will help address.
TRICON is working closely with area schools, teachers and education organizations to connect what students learn in the classroom to real-world applications, especially in the area of construction math. TRICON recently visited Manual High School, which has been revitalizing and growing its industrial technology program, not only to provide a day of construction career information, but also to add a focus on construction math. The day was hugely successful, and this type of activity will be replicated and offered to other schools and organizations.
Existing TRICON-sponsored and co-sponsored programs have expanded over the last few years and are yielding positive results. Area high school students have participated in the High School Construction Industry Work-Based Learning Program, receiving high school course credit, getting hands-on training at area apprenticeship schools and participating in internships with area union contractors. Additional focus has been placed on core skills like math, and in the 2009-2010 class of students, scores in math and English improved significantly over the duration of the program. Recruitment for the 2011-2012 school year is already underway. High school females participated in Women in Construction Days, held most recently at the electricians, steamfitters and cement masons apprenticeship schools. Each year, the 8th Grade Construction Career Expo continues to provide 900 to 1,200 students with hands-on construction activities at booths representing various construction trades.
Minority and female participation in all of these programs has increased steadily in the last five years—the High School Work-Based Learning Program has seen as high as 48-percent female/minority participation in a single year. What’s most exciting about these programs is the number of participants who are going on to successfully apply for, train in and start construction careers.
New to the area is a construction pre-apprenticeship program coordinated by Illinois Central College/Professional Development Institute on behalf of the Illinois Department of Transportation. TRICON and members of the union construction industry have helped support and provide training opportunities for this program that reaches adults age 18 and older.
Also expanding is the availability of training in the emerging green-collar economy. Green building training programs and courses can be accessed through area apprenticeship schools, Illinois Central College, the Central Illinois Branch of the U.S. Green Building Council—Illinois Chapter, and nonprofit organizations.
Area construction apprenticeship schools offer highly specialized and comprehensive training, both in the classroom and on the job. Training is funded by an hourly check-off of working trade members. Marty Helfers, executive director of the West Central Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council, explains, “It can be difficult to take new apprentices in a down economy due to a lack of projects on which to place them. The current high unemployment in construction jobs seriously impacts these check-off funded training programs.” Helfers continues, however, with a positive note. “There has been a slight uptick in work, and several area trades may take apprentices this fall.”
So while the economy has limited the number of openings currently available in construction, there are real opportunities just around the corner. Students and adults alike can prepare for those opportunities by learning about construction careers, engaging in area training programs and brushing up on important basic skills like math. The union construction industry has made a commitment to build a diverse and skilled workforce right here in central Illinois, a workforce that will ensure top-quality construction and support the local economy. That’s an opportunity not to be overlooked. iBi