GRAND RAPIDS — The West Michigan Construction Institute will facilitate more specialized trades training programs as part of a $3 million second-phase expansion.
The 14,000-square-foot construction training facility opened in January at 801 Century Ave. SW in Grand Rapids and held its first pilot semester of training programs from January through May. In its pilot phase, WMCI served about 100 people in adult craft training programs and about 30 high school students.
“We do three things here: serve high school students in work-based learning, adults in craft trades and skilled trades, and we are an industry hub for construction certification programs,” West Michigan Construction Institute President Jen Schottke told MiBiz.
The first academic year at WMCI recently began, with an increase from three to seven schools sending students for training and a 25-percent increase in enrollment compared to the pilot semester, Schottke said.
“When we designed the building, we did have phase two in mind,” Schottke said. “We weren’t sure exactly when that would happen, but thought it would be pretty quick. There has been so much interest in young people in our programs, so we’re excited about that.”
WMCI includes a common area, two construction labs, classrooms and offices for the Associated Builders & Contractors Western Michigan chapter. The planned 4,765-square-foot expansion would add more construction lab space and offices for institute staff.
“That’s at the heart of why individuals choose this pathway — the hands-on component of what we do,” Schottke said. “The two labs we have now are relatively small. They are meeting our needs, but that’s where we are feeling the pressure points.”
Currently, instructors have to set up and tear down temporary worksites in the lab space before and after classes because of space restraints.
The new lab space will be dedicated to craft trades educational programs for construction and masonry, interior/exterior finishes, plumbing and electrical training. Currently, the institute has programs for concrete, carpentry and exterior envelope trades.
Having a diverse range of training programs will provide more pathways into construction and also make the space more comparable to a job site, Schottke said.
“This will let us be creative in how we educate in the trades and we can better simulate a commercial construction environment and how we support one another,” Schottke said.
The decades-long talent struggle in the construction industry was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased demand stemming from the historic influx of federal funding to local communities from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Construction companies are increasingly pouring resources into tools like the WMCI to get elementary and high school students to explore construction career paths.
“We’ve got to continue to make construction look like it’s a career path and not a second choice,” said Shane Napper, president of construction and COO at Rockford Construction Co. Inc., a Grand Rapids-based contractor that has been working closely with and supporting the West Michigan Construction Institute.
Napper said the company has been spending more time showing young people at the college, high school and middle school level the realities of the modern construction industry, which has a range of opportunities spanning from the job site and the trades to I.T., accounting and legal services. The company also quadrupled its internship program to deepen the level of exposure the prospective workforce has to the construction industry.
“You’ve got to commit to having the people come in, having a great dialogue, showing them what it’s all about,” Napper said. “We’ve got interns starting at your freshman year of college coming in. We’ve got high school internships we’ve had coming in. We’re walking through middle schoolers now because they want to see what the construction industry is about.
“We need to make sure people understand construction is a top industry.”
To support the phase two expansion, the WMCI secured a $2 million appropriation in the 2023 state budget.
As well, the expansion project was awarded $1 million from Kent County’s share of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding.
Nearly half of Kent County’s 21 recommended ARPA projects requested funding for construction projects, which will require a skilled workforce that WMCI helps provide, Schottke said.
“Opening the institute has been such a rewarding experience,” Schottke said. “Many high school students from the pilot program are working in the industry right now.”
MiBiz Editor Joe Boomgaard contributed to this report.