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Sunday, 18 February 2018 19:51

Workforce development initiatives show signs of progress

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By focusing on an internal culture that favors employee retention and support for external training initiatives, some West Michigan executives say they’ve largely avoided any problems associated with labor shortages.

Elzinga & Volkers Inc. for instance hired 45 employees in 2017 and has retained all of them to date, with plans for future growth in employment, according to Tony Roussey, COO at the Holland-based construction management firm. 

“I hear from our trade partners and some of our competitors that they feel it’s getting tougher and tougher to find personnel. Personally, I’m not experiencing that,” Roussey said. “We tried to create an attractive place to work here. Part of that is when we do talk to individuals, we talk to them about the opportunities to really learn a lot about the industry through different programs we offer. I think that can set us apart sometimes.”

While talk of labor shortages in the manufacturing and the construction industries have been rampant for years, a December report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that just over half of surveyed firms had trouble finding workers, and that most expect to do additional hiring in the near future. They’re also doing so amid increases in revenue and profit margins. 

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show the construction industry workforce is projected to grow 12 percent –– “faster than average” when compared with other industries –– through 2026. 

While concerns over workforce development and attracting skilled workers may not run across the board, that’s hardly stopping companies like Elzinga & Volkers, construction industry trade organizations and higher education institutions from investing in worker training initiatives. 

Roussey noted that Elzinga & Volkers is one of a handful of the regional firms active in the Construction Workforce Development Alliance (CWDA). 

Formed by three industry trade associations — Associated Builders & Contractors of West Michigan, American Subcontractors Association of Michigan and the Homebuilders Association of Greater Grand Rapids, the CWDA wants to encourage young people to explore careers in the construction industry. 

Moreover, Roussey said he believes it’s incumbent on all construction companies to collaborate on making the industry more appealing for all with the hope of bringing more people into the trades.

“If you don’t create a great environment for them, they may leave the industry altogether,” Roussey said. “So not only has the company lost a worker, the industry lost a worker.”

MULTIPLE PARTNERS

While executives like Roussey credit an internal focus on company culture with helping to overcome any issues with labor shortages, other industry stakeholders have had to overcome more external factors, most prominently skeptical parents. 

Jen Schottke, vice president of workforce development for ABC of West Michigan, said that while it’s becoming increasingly easier to get students in high school or younger to take an interest in the industry, it’s still somewhat of a taboo topic among parents. 

“My roadblock continues to be parents,” Schottke said. “Even if I go in and get a kid really excited, if they go home and talk to mom and dad and mom and dad have been putting away for a college education for the past 17 or 18 years of a student’s life, they’re telling them, ‘No. You’re going to college.’ Convincing students and schools is the easy part. Convincing parents is the hard part right now.”

A founding member of the CWDA, ABC of West Michigan also works closely with organizations like Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) and Michigan Works!, largely as a means of identifying where specific gaps exist in construction training, developing curriculum and securing funding for the training programs. 

“That three-pronged approach has worked really well,” Schottke said. 

While ABC tends to work more with non-union construction firms, organized labor in Michigan also continues ramping up its training initiatives. 

Later this year, the Detroit-based Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights plans to open a 67,000-square-foot training facility in Wayland, between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. 

Mike Jackson, executive secretary and treasurer for the union, told MiBiz he expects the facility to be occupied by January 2019. When it opens, the training center will replace dated facilities in Mason and Fennville. 

Given the length of time Michigan was in an economic downturn and the number of workers who left the industry, the state still has a long ways to go before it will have enough construction workers, Jackson said.

“That created this donut hole during that decade that didn’t come into the industry,” Jackson said. “It went into a very fast turnaround and a big construction boom here in Michigan. We don’t have the experienced people to throw at that work. We’re not addressing all of the manpower needs for the construction industry today. But our (apprenticeship) system is bringing them out a lot quicker and a lot more qualified than any system I’ve seen.”

BRIGHT FUTURE OR SLOWDOWNS?

With construction cranes in the air around downtown Grand Rapids and new projects popping up all over the region, it appears on the surface that construction companies are having no trouble completing their work. 

But behind the scenes, Schottke says that workforce shortages continue to hamper the industry. She notes she’s hearing more frequently that bids for projects are getting no responses because contractors don’t have the labor available to take on the work. 

“You’re certainly seeing an active and healthy industry,” Schottke said. “But what you’re not seeing are the projects that are being delayed or the exclusivity that’s happening with contractors where they’re now in a position where they pick and choose their work. Of course you’re not seeing what’s not being built.”

According to Roussey at Elzinga & Volkers — a four-decade veteran of the construction industry — if the culture of workforce development persists, the future for the sector remains strong. 

“I’m an old guy at the end of my career, but I’m a guy that doesn’t believe all this talk about Millennials,” he said. “I think kids today are generally just as good as they were back in 1975 when I was a kid. I love the opportunities out there with some of these bright young individuals and all we need to do is get them trained and get them educated and the industry will be strong.” 

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