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The West Michigan Construction Institute in Grand Rapids opened in January 2022. The West Michigan Construction Institute in Grand Rapids opened in January 2022. COURTESY PHOTO

Budget directs $16M for union, non-union construction trades development

BY Friday, July 08, 2022 10:34pm

A state budget deal announced last week allocates $16 million to construction training programs across the state to help combat the industry’s ongoing labor challenges.

The funding is split evenly between non-union and union construction trades groups: $8 million for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan (ABC) and $8 million for the Michigan branch of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA). 

Leaders of both organizations plan to use the funding to bring more diversity to the construction trades by expanding outreach efforts and programming. Recruiting for construction training programs and jobs needs to “go beyond what’s traditional,” said Jimmy Greene, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan.

According to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 10.9 percent of the construction industry’s employee base was made up of women, while 6 percent was Black and 2 percent was Asian.

“We’ve got to do a better job at marketing the skilled trades,” Greene said. “We have a two- to three-year backlog in commercial building projects, but we’re moving as fast as we can with fewer people and an aging workforce as well. We’re all starving for people, but we need really good people, so we’ll have to train and educate these folks.”

The U.S. had 402,000 unfilled construction positions by the end of October 2021, marking the second-highest level of unfilled positions recorded since data collection started in December 2000, according to a March McKinsey & Co. report.

LiUNA’s recruiting process has focused on bringing more women into the skilled trades, said Jonathan Byrd, director of external affairs at the Michigan chapter of the union, which represents about 500,000 workers nationwide.

“I see us continuing to expand that effort,” Byrd said. “The construction industry typically has not been an industry where a lot of women have pursued careers, but we actually do better than many other trades programs on recruiting women. But we can do better.”

Greene also has focused on recruiting more people of color and people in the LGBTQ community, he said.

“I work hand-in-hand personally with the LGBTQ community and sit on the Great Lakes Community Pride Board,” Greene said. “We’re doing all the necessary things, but progress won’t happen overnight and part of recruitment is consistency.”

For ABC, the $8 million in state funding will help make recruiting efforts more consistent by expanding the roles of recruiters at ABC training centers, Greene said. 

“If we spend the $8 million doing exactly the same thing with the same people, we know the results will be exactly the same,” Greene said. “We’ll have to shake it up, and that money will provide us the opportunity to do more things, and try different marketing.”

ABC will also use the funding to upgrade training facilities, including the West Michigan Construction Institute that opened in January 2022.

Greene said he “applauds” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for allocating money to trade groups representing both union and non-union companies.

“I give her credit for doing that because it will take all of us to fill this trade gap,” Greene said.

The funding is a first for both organizations, and Greene sees it — if proven effective — as an opportunity for future allocations.

“When you’re in somebody’s budget, you get the opportunity to go back and show it was a return on their investment the next year,” he said. “If you do, you will probably stay in the budget.”

LiUNA will use the funding for similar initiatives as ABC, including funding for supplies, training curriculum, equipment at and improvements to training institutes, as well as instructional costs and costs incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This funding will primarily go toward training union construction workers for primarily infrastructure projects related to energy infrastructure, roads, bridges and other projects we have coming from the state and federal government,” Byrd said. “We want to make sure we can provide enough talent to fill the need.”

The industry is also experiencing a strong need to recruit more certified commercial drivers for materials that need to be moved around the state to construction sites, Byrd said.

The vast majority of LiUNA’s work is funded through its membership, but the additional state funds will allow it to expand the number of instructors and equipment across the organization’s four training locations in the state, Byrd said.

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