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The average 2015 college graduate owes about $35,000 in student loan debt—the highest level in history, according to government data. Despite lower national unemployment figures, many of these four-year graduates have little guarantee of job placement, making for an unstable future.

Now consider the average construction graduate. After completing an associate’s degree or a state-funded, certified two- or three-year apprenticeship program, the average electrician, welder or plumber stands to earn more than $50,000 a year right out of the gate. He or she has little to no student loan debt, and already holds a high-paying job—plus career skills that are in top demand as the baby boomer generation retires. The construction industry is falling short of its workforce demand by almost 1.6 million positions by 2022, based on the latest estimates by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

This is the message that construction recruiters and trainers—and employers growing desperate to fill their impending workforce void—are sharing with prospective students. They’re not only targeting high schoolers, but also college students who are undecided on their majors, adults whose jobs were lost to the recession, and anyone else who is looking to make a smart career move.

When it comes to shifting an outdated mindset that construction is a dead-end or undesirable job choice, money talks. So do the real-life examples of young tradesmen and professionals who’ve rapidly accelerated their long-term job security by choosing to enter apprenticeship programs such as those offered by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) in partnership with local contractors that invest time and dollars into training.

An Apprenticeship First for Florida

At Advanced Roofing, Florida’s largest commercial re-roofing company, the need for fresh talent is becoming clear as the economy revives. In 2014, the company earned $71 million, and with seven branches and 300 employees throughout Florida, Advanced Roofing is now hiring—but not just anyone. The company is seeking workers who are in it for the long run.

Entry-level workers are encouraged to enroll in Advanced Roofing’s new three-year roofing apprenticeship training program, which it helped start two years ago in cooperation with the state of Florida and ABC’s Florida East Coast Chapter. Today, it is Florida’s only state- and federally registered open shop apprenticeship program for the roofing industry.

F1-ARoofingNewThis year and last year combined, 16 apprentices completed the program.

“Many people have retired from roofing, and we have recently seen the need to hire and train new people,” says Kevin Kornahrens, vice president of Advanced Roofing. “We worked on creating an in-house training curriculum, but we realized we needed additional support. That’s when we reached out to ABC and the National Roofing Contractors Association for assistance in navigating state rules and regulations for on-the-job apprenticeship training.”

Any roofing contractor can participate—it’s not just for Advanced Roofing employees. In fact, ABC and Advanced Roofing recruited another local company, Best Roofing, to join the industry-wide effort. Best Roofing trained two of its employees this year, and it already has committed to put seven people through the program next year.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity predicts there will be more than 6,000 job openings for roofers between 2014 and 2022. While roofing laborers start out making about $12 an hour, they earn on average $18 to $20 an hour after graduating in three years with Roofing Mechanic II or Leadman credentials.

“It’s about investing back. As a 32-year-old company, we recognized we could influence the roofing industry here and help make it a desirable career path,” Kornahrens says.

Apprentices complete the program at no cost. Students must be at least 18 years old, be employed 40 hours a week and be sponsored by a participating company, which pays for the student’s books, materials and fees. Each year of the program requires apprentices to put in more than 144 classroom and lab hours, plus 2,000 hours of on-the-job training. To ensure the craftworkers are serious and committed to the program, they must work for the contractor for at least six months before enrolling in the employer-sponsored apprenticeship.

Advanced Roofing donates materials needed for installing complete roofing systems—plus its in-house crane equipment and company yard for lab work and training mockups.

David Baytosh, a veteran employee of Advanced Roofing, volunteers his time as a trainer with the new apprenticeship program. “It gives the younger guys an opportunity to see the future in our industry. It brings them from helper-level to apprenticeship to mechanic level. It’s a win-win. These employees become more valuable to us in the field. The more talented and productive they become, the more money they make. It’s a great deal for both of us,” he says.

Not only are the students more motivated, but they also bring positive energy to their fellow crew members.

“Our foremen have the apprentices go over with the crew what they learned in class the night before. The whole company is encouraging these guys,” Kornahrens says. The classes are held once a week from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. That means they work all day, go to night class, and then get up early the next morning to work another full day.

“We reward them for these extra manhours by pumping up their salary after each year of training. We like to show the employees we’re investing in them. They’re not going to get that level of investment at any other contracting company,” he says.

“Construction does have a lot of labor turnover, and it’s tough to get guys in here,” Baytosh adds. “A lot of people are exiting the trades, and it’s difficult to keep people, but this sets the path for them to stay in the industry.”

At the end of the three-year program, the graduates not only hold an apprenticeship certificate, but they also have an OSHA 10 safety certificate, as well as crane and signal coursework under their belts.

ABC’s Florida East Coast Chapter invests more than $1 million a year locally on apprenticeship training, but there would be no results without the participation of employers.

F1-FLeast“For every dollar they invest in education, they can get up to $3 in return from increased productivity, lower turnover, reduced absenteeism and less rework. These are all things that are going to help this industry,” says Peter Dyga, president of the Florida East Coast Chapter.

As a recruiter for ABC and its various apprenticeship programs, Ruth Tirado, the chapter’s vice president of education and training, stays on message: It’s not just a job. It’s a career.

“I don’t want to offer these folks a six-month job. This is a career path. It is a life skill that you are going to be able to take anywhere, to any employer.”

And the message works. Compare the cost of private or for-profit education and the interest owed for financial aid with the almost zero cost of an employer-sponsored, debt-free apprenticeship program, and the choice is a no-brainer, she says.

The key is showing off practical benefits within the industry. For example, ABC has begun offering flexible onsite training options. “For contractors that are having a hard time releasing their employees to be able to go to school, we train and certify their supervisors with the NCCER curriculum so they can facilitate the education and the training unit at their own shop,” Tirado says. Also, the chapter prevents attrition by offering online distance training for apprentices who need to work on jobsites that are beyond driving distance from the chapter’s three training locations.

Real-World, Hands-on Training

Another message employers want to send to prospective employees is that a career in construction is not just hands on; it’s high tech.

ABC of Wisconsin, Inc. is garnering attention with four new heavy equipment simulators, a crane simulator and two welding simulators that provide the real-world experience all in one place, without damaging expensive equipment or causing environmental degradation during the learning process. The simulators were funded as part of a three-year federal Sector Alliance for the Green Economy (SAGE) grant allocated to Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development to “green up” the trades by investing in environmental responsibility in apprenticeship programs.

F1-Wisc“Our heavy equipment apprenticeship instructor and I had been talking for years about the idea of using simulators to enhance the existing training. We never really pursued it because the costs were high,” says Wayne Belanger, director of education for ABC of Wisconsin, which has offered a heavy equipment apprenticeship for more than 15 years.

With the grant, the trust purchased motor grader, wheel loader, excavator and dozer simulators that incorporate the first-person controls and visuals common to gaming. They have a motion platform that moves as if the operator is working on real terrain. Activities include pre-programmed scenarios such as moving a load or grading for a new neighborhood.

“That means that in the simulation, if the machine goes over rough or soft terrain, you feel it. If the excavator’s arm gets too close to something and bangs into something, you feel it,” Belanger says.

In the welding helmets, trainees experience a 3-D virtual reality environment—complete with various types of practice welds and visuals that mirror real life.

The chapter also has a North American Crane Bureau mobile crane simulator.

“All of these simulators develop muscle memory, so that in the real environment, you are not a fish out of water,” Belanger says. The heavy equipment simulators even tie in the productivity aspect of the job—scoring users with a dollar amount for the percentage of work they get done within a particular exercise.

“It has certainly generated interest among our ABC members as a way to introduce the world of construction to high school students and prospective employees,” Belanger says.

One of those contractor members is Wondra Construction, Iron Ridge, Wis., which has supported and trained dozens of craftworkers through ABC’s apprenticeship programs. Recently, Wondra sent four employees of different experience levels, from high school to veteran age, to use the heavy equipment simulators.

“It’s expensive to set up a real situation to let students practice different scopes of work on certain jobsites,” says Wondra Controller Roger Thimm. “In the simulation, you can quickly pop scenarios up and show them different techniques and methods they can practice.”

Also, the simulators give an employer like Wondra the chance to assess a potential craftworker’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, he or she may have stronger hand-eye coordination and attention to detail on a certain piece of equipment, and it’s best to know that before placing that employee behind the controls. In addition, the simulators help with project risk reduction: An employee isn’t learning by trial and error on a real job that has real overhead, accountability and schedule constraints.

“Even when you’re hiring employees with past experience, with the simulators you get to know their capabilities, background and safety experience, because different companies train differently,” Thimm says.

In addition to risk management and safety benefits, the simulators aid productivity, which is top of mind as contractors get busier in the fall season. Tim Feucht, a Wondra Construction foreman and an instructor for ABC’s heavy equipment operator apprenticeship program, says he observes a jump in productivity after the students complete their two weeks of block training on the simulators.

Having completed the apprenticeship program himself 10 years ago, Feucht knows what it’s like to be in the field, practicing the basics. “The guys will often forget what they read in class, but when you put them on the equipment, they can try their skills right away,” Feucht says.

Also, it helps that they’re not sitting in a $300,000 piece of equipment that really moves, or really welds—so the students are just a little more comfortable, he says.

The simulators provide an opportunity to change minds in the local community about the potential of a career in the construction industry. “The contractors I know are super busy, but there’s no young help out there. Anything you can do to train and evaluate people before you even hire them is a big help,” Feucht says.

Industry-Community Connections

In Baltimore, the ABC chapter is working to influence impressions of construction at a formative age. Last fall, the chapter began communicating with the principal of Perry Hall High School to create a new four-week summer Construction Technology Academy for job skills immersion.

Michelle Butt, vice president of education and training for the ABC Baltimore Metro Chapter, collaborated with Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS) and the Community College of Baltimore County to create an introductory program that provides students with basic electrical, carpentry, plumbing and safety skills. Tool suppliers such as Hilti and Milwaukee provide demos and certification for using power-actuated tools, and contractors such as Green Contracting Company, a large mechanical firm, support the program by providing company tours.

F1-BaltimoreStudents also learn basic employability skills, such as work ethics, résumé writing and interview skills.

“The teachers, the students and the contractors got so much out of this pilot program. We’re looking at how we can expand the program into other Baltimore schools,” Butt says. “There’s such a shortage of skilled workers, and companies are understaffed. This is one way to try to capture a new workforce, or at least to give people the opportunity to explore the option of construction.”

At the end of the four-week academy, each student leaves with a certificate from the community college, as well as a binder of credentials and notes from lessons they’ve learned. In addition, they’ve completed five short job interviews with five different Baltimore area contractors. While there is no guarantee of a job, one student did get hired directly out of the academy with Tissa Enterprises, Inc. (TEI), Frederick, Md.

Frank Murphy, president and COO of TEI, chaired the chapter’s task force that helped develop the BCPS Construction Technology Academy.

“One of our initiatives has been trying to break down the on-ramps for coming from high school to this industry,” Murphy says. “We saw several good candidates in the program, and we reached out to one of them, Evan Postlewaite, who was quite interested in the electrical trade.” He started in August as an Apprentice 1.

TEI maintained a steady workforce despite the economic downturn and will continue to hire during the rebound, but Murphy says he’d rather not onboard workers who aren’t dedicated to the industry to begin with. Through programs like the Construction Technology Academy, employers can concentrate efforts on students who may stick around.

“We see the challenges of hiring and getting good, qualified people right now,” he says. “The image of the industry hurts us, and we need to dress it up a little bit so it becomes more attractive to the students who may be interested after high school or college.”

Giving Students a ‘Running Start’

Carla Kugler, education and safety director and NCCER master trainer with ABC’s New Mexico Chapter, says her contractor members are facing similar hiring challenges. She is leading a Running Start for Careers program in “Construction 101” using the chapter’s knowledge base and NCCER’s Core Curriculum resources.

Connecting with local education policymakers and politicians was essential before launching the introductory skills course.

Kugler and ABC New Mexico Chapter President Roxanne Rivera-Wiest took guidance from the past successes of ABC’s TEXO and Heart of America chapters. They sought the support of the Albuquerque mayor, Albuquerque Public School (APS) board and Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) to allow the chapter’s training facility to be used by high school students during the day, when the labs are vacant and its apprentices are out working on jobsites.

F1-NMRunning Start is a coordinated effort to decrease New Mexico’s high school dropout rate by providing students with pre-apprenticeship or career development training. Industries include construction, film, health care, hotels and tourism, finance and medical laboratory services.

The ABC New Mexico Chapter was a perfect fit because of its existing articulation agreement with the community college. All APS students must log two weeks or six hours of college-level classes to graduate, and this NCCER Core Curriculum-based coursework falls in line with the school system’s dual-credit requirement.Since launching a few years ago, the ABC New Mexico Running Start program has graduated about 50 APS students, who now hold an NCCER card that will give them a head start on their training should they choose to pursue a career in construction.

“We have continued to grow and get funding from city council, Kugler says. “While APS has a graduation rate of 76 percent, students who participate in our program have a graduation rate of 96 percent. We’re very proud of this because you would assume that we would have even more ‘risk-to-not-complete’ students because we’re not as glamorous or sexy as other industries, but we’re actually beating the rest of the population.”

The full-year Running Start program begins in September and is broken into two semesters, ending in late April. It includes 120 hours of classroom time, part of which includes the 72-hour NCCER Core Curriculum.

In addition, every year the students complete a hands-on project. The instructor, a carpenter, inspires the importance of math and using angles. One year, the students built sawhorses. Another year, they built a small set of steps that were donated to low-income residents of an area mobile home park.

The year before, it was chicken coops, designed by students in the University of New Mexico’s architecture program with plans created by students in CNM’s CAD program. Then, the Running Start students acted as the trade contractors to build the coops, which were donated to urban farmers.

Students also are exposed to the plumbing and sheet metal trades at the chapter so they can gain a full picture of the jobs available to them.

“The great part is, it doesn’t cost them a thing,” Kugler says. “And they get to keep their core curriculum books as well as earn their dual college credit.”

While the chapter has yet to see one of the Running Start high school students enroll in an ABC apprenticeship program, many open up to the idea of attending more trade or automotive repair courses at the community college.

Contractors including Thompson Construction and Enterprise Builders have assisted as guest presenters, and even as future employers.

“We have actively sought young laborers when we needed help, and then we have gotten them enrolled in ABC’s carpenter apprentice program,” says Thompson Construction President Dennis Thompson, who has been training his workforce with ABC for the past 28 years. “We were looking for a laborer with some construction experience for a re-roof project, and we hired one Running Start student for the summer.”

The Future: Tough Love Needed

As workforce woes are front and center for the construction industry, it’s essential for contractors not to act and to invest now.

“Unfortunately, since 2008, the industry has shrunk a lot,” Dyga says. “We had a high of 1,500 apprentices then, and now that we are crawling out of the recession, we are back up to near 500 apprentices. That’s still one-third of the number of students we had in 2008. Here’s the tough love: We are asking our members, what were you doing during the down years? Why weren’t you investing in training your folks during those years?

“You need to be developing your workforce all the time,” Dyga says.

Also essential is having a not-just-anybody approach to training and hiring. Through programs such as Running Start, Jump Start, the ACE Mentor program, Ready-Set-Build, and a multitude of other state and local initiatives, contractors can narrow their focus to those who have been vetted through introductory coursework.

“The reason local hiring is so difficult is you can’t just hire anybody in construction. They have to be safe, they have to meet certain criteria, and they have to have certain basic skills. So, we partner with community organizations to ensure we are providing a good pool for local hiring, and we make these workers much more appealing for contractors to hire,” Dyga says.

Thimm agrees. “Wondra Construction could have recruiters spend their whole career looking for that ‘perfect employee.’ That employee doesn’t exist. That’s why our apprenticeship training sets us apart; it gives our employees a chance to prove themselves. With our training programs, we feel confident we are giving them chances to produce and improve. That’s why we spend 75 cents per manhour on training. By bringing employees up to speed on jobsites, we increase productivity as much as we can.”

Even contractors that aren’t hiring immediately should begin preparing now by meeting with school board leaders and community groups, and planting the seeds in young persons’ minds.

“You can’t just flip the light switch. It’s a long-term investment,” Thimm says.

“It is our responsibility as an association to bring this training to young folks,” Kugler adds. “Our workforce is retiring or already retiring, and we have fewer and fewer people going into the construction trades. We need more spokespeople who make it more appealing for students. We’ve got to let them know they can make a good living and find solid work in the construction industry.”

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