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Pandemic amplifies talent shortage, lack of diversity in construction industry

BY Sunday, November 22, 2020 04:00pm

West Michigan’s construction industry has long faced a talent shortage fueled by a worker exodus during the 2008 recession, stigma around going into skilled trades, and firms failing to recruit a diverse workforce. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these ongoing issues for West Michigan construction firms through state-ordered shutdowns last spring and a further shrinking talent pool as workers contract the virus. 

About 5 percent of the construction workforce has been sidelined because workers have contracted COVID-19, have been exposed to someone with the virus and have to quarantine, are immunocompromised and are taking a break, or are serving as a caretaker for a family member with COVID-19, said Norm Brady, CEO of Associated Builders & Contractors’ Western Michigan chapter. 

These health and safety challenges — coupled with a federal stimulus package that included an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits — shrunk the number of available workers.

“Post the stipend, and knowing more data now about COVID-19, we’re now seeing an uptick in people going back to our job sites, but we’re not making major gains in filling the delta of the industry,” said Shane Napper, president of construction at Rockford Construction Co. 

Workforce development

While the pandemic has affected the talent shortage, West Michigan construction leaders admit they have generally not been aggressive on the talent issue — but that appears to be changing with a greater focus on recruiting. 

“With the skilled trades, there’s been a (talent shortage) issue for quite some time now,” said Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. COO Jeremy Amshey. “In the last couple years it’s really started affecting the general contractors and construction management firms quite a bit more.”

Because OAK had generally low staff turnover, the term “recruitment” was not in the company’s vocabulary, Amshey said. 

“We’ve had to take a step back and shift marketing efforts to focus on recruitment,” Amshey said. “It’s something we don’t want to take for granted.”

Construction firms are now working on recruiting and retaining talent in a variety of ways, including using interns and having students job shadow during projects. Owen-Ames-Kimball used to have three or four interns each season, but has increased its cohort to 10-12, with the goal of eventually hiring them, Amshey said.

“Internships are a big deal with us. We’ve grown that more to get people involved and to give them a better idea about working with us,” Amshey said. “We just got done hiring 12 interns — a couple are right out of high school and seeing if they like the industry.”

Rockford partners with many of the regional efforts to develop talent in the industry, but also does some in-house training and job shadowing.

“We get some people that are unskilled but are really good workers and we work with them on internal training,” Napper said. “We love supporting the workforce development efforts but we’ve also got a lot of skilled people here that love to share their trade.”

A group of organizations have joined forces in recent years to work in local schools to expose students to the possibility of a career in the skilled trades and construction. Entities involved include Associated Builders & Contractors, Construction Workforce Development Alliance of West Michigan, American Subcontractors Association of Michigan, West Michigan Works, and Grand Rapids Community College.

“We do a fair amount with Grand Rapids Public Schools, particularly the Innovation Central High School,” Brady said. “We coordinate with staff and bring in different trades workers and they speak about what they do, why they love it and why a student might consider it.”

ABC’s local chapter is in the process of relocating its headquarters and creating the West Michigan Institute, which will teach students about the industry and be a source of talent for contractors, Brady said. The project on Grand Rapids’ Southwest side is expected to be completed at the beginning of 2022.

‘White male-dominated’ industry

Demographics in West Michigan and across the country are changing, and so far the construction industry hasn’t kept up, said Aaron Jonker, president and co-owner of Wolverine Building Group.

“Most of our job sites are white male-dominated in this industry, particularly in West Michigan, but that’s got to change if we want to maintain viability,” Jonker said. “Part of it is encouraging people of color and women to see construction as a viable career choice.”

Jonker is part of the Talent 2025 Inc. diversity and inclusion team, a community-based approach to attract and support people of color in the workforce. Jonker said the work is critical since being the only woman or the only non-white person on a job site can be intimidating.

“We need to understand our differences,” Jonker said. “The misconception of ‘color blindness’ is a huge problem. We need to acknowledge that race exists and it creates challenges, but we can work through them.”

Rockford Construction’s Dimensions program focuses on working with minority-owned and women-owned commercial contractors on local projects, Napper said. This relationship is meant to help build their businesses and provide work opportunities on local projects.

Part of the diversity issue also stems from the West Michigan construction industry’s reliance on hiring friends and family of current employees.

“If you keep fishing from the same pond, you’ll keep getting the same fish,” Jonker said. “What we’ve got is a long term culture that has traditionally been dominated by rural, white males.” 

Construction courses at Grand Rapids Community College are increasingly diverse, but there are only three women out of three classes in the program, said Julie Parks, GRCC’s executive director of workforce training.

“Women are still an area where we’re really lacking,” Parks said. “For recruiting in general, we’re starting to make some headway.”

The construction industry has a stereotype of being physically demanding, which is enforced by job descriptions that often include lifting requirements, said Jenny Waugh, marketing operations director at Fishbeck Inc. 

“The male-leaning words we use to describe the jobs themselves need to change, and I think we need to expose children, little girls and people of color to the possibility of a job in construction,” Waugh said. “We should have school counselors spreading that message.”

Waugh recently started an affinity group through Inforum for Michigan women in the construction industry. The network includes 50-70 women with jobs across the construction sector, and gives women space to share their experiences and ask questions.

“Employers who are deliberate about including people of color on their staff today are going to be in the best position to fill their talent needs of tomorrow because demographics in the country are changing,” said Brady, of Associated Builders & Contractors. “Those who make the effort now are going to be able to connect with people of color more in the future.”

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