Published in Talent

Firms more active in recruiting for construction trades

BY Sunday, February 17, 2019 05:41pm

When Steve Huizenga seeks to recruit the next generation of tradespeople, he stresses to young candidates that the industry is “not your grandpa’s trade” anymore.

Huizenga, president of Allied Mechanical Services Inc., a Grand Rapids-based mechanical contracting firm, said promoting the technology used in the construction trades has been key in recruiting men and women to join his company.

Ryan Bennett MIBIZ FILE PHOTO

“You have to be quite tech savvy to come be a plumber or pipefitter for us,” he said. “Our guys are working with their smartphones, iPads — a lot of that technology piece is how we’re attracting that next generation of tradesmen.”

Amid an ongoing labor shortage, firms have had to get more active and creative in finding and keeping workers. That includes partnering with higher education institutions and offering innovative ways to complete school and training, with companies sometimes offering to foot the bill.

Many firms in Michigan say they expect difficulty hiring personnel in 2019, according to a survey by the Associated General Contractors of America and Sage Construction and Real Estate. Data released in January from the survey of 42 Michigan firms showed 45 percent expected difficulty hiring hourly craft or salaried personnel in the next 12 months, while 21 percent expect the labor situation to become worse.

Some firms told MiBiz that they begin trying to reach future talent at the grade school level, and then the focus is on continuously developing the talent they do have as technology advances.

Companies in the construction sector have gotten more creative in their efforts to reach students, said Rachel Austin, director of corporate trades for Elzinga & Volkers Inc. This includes offering tours of job sites and just generally getting more face time with students with a goal of removing barriers to entry.

“Many of us have enhanced our hands-on training programs to a level that parents and people from other industries are recognizing it as sophisticated,” she said. “You can come in at the ground level, not having much construction knowledge, and we will train you and have various opportunities for education while you’re employed.”

This mindset led to the company’s Blueprint for Success, an onboarding program implemented in 2016 that features guides customized for new project managers and office team and field members. A new hire will spend time in one or multiple of the 70 modules to learn about each trade. Nearly 100 people have gone through the program so far, according to Austin.

While the Blueprint for Success program helps participants learn about the industry, it also makes a difference with retention.

“They get connected to our workforce and form bonds way sooner than if they just started doing the job and let things happen naturally,” Austin said. “We’ve seen a really positive impact on our retention implementing this program.”

Ryan Bennett, business agent for Local 174 of the West Michigan Plumbers, Fitters and Service Trades Union, said despite others experiencing a talent shortage, the apprenticeship program through the union has remained popular.

Classes usually start with 12-14 people, while acceptance varies on the need for workers. The last class was selected out of more than 300 applications, Bennett said.

The five-year apprentice program trains workers to become journeymen, pipefitters and HVAC service technicians. It also provides union contractors with trained workers.

“For skills, we need someone that’s willing to show up and work hard every day, and we’ll teach them the rest in our apprenticeship program,” he said.

Bennett added the popularity is due to the pay and benefits provided to workers, and free trainings led by contractors that workers can attend. Pay ranges from $16.70 per hour in the first year to $26.73 in the fifth year. Journeymen make $33.41 per hour, Bennett said. All apprentices receive health insurance, a medical reimbursement account and defined benefit pension. Journeymen have the added benefit of a 401(k).

Apprenticeships continue growing in popularity nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Across the country, apprenticeships have grown by 42 percent since 2013.

In 2017, the number of apprentices reached 533,607, 125 percent higher than the 20-year national average.

Partnerships with higher ed

Some firms have formed partnerships with higher education institutions to recruit workers.

Allied Mechanical’s Huizenga has been working with Grand Rapids Community College on a scholarship aimed at finding women to fill service tech positions, a program he hopes to launch in the next couple of months.

“We’re having it where they can come work for us and make money, and we’re going to pay for their education,” he said, adding that women can bring needed skill sets to the industry.

Bennett said he is beginning to reach out more to local community colleges to establish a pipeline from those institutions to the union, much like a partnership Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor Township has with the local union in that area. The program allows students to graduate with an associate degree and become a journeyman at the same time.

Bennett said he is researching the possibilities of starting similar programs with GRCC, Muskegon Community College and West Shore Community College in Scottville.

As well, the Western Michigan chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors partners with local school districts to create professional development opportunities. On Feb. 19, ABC is partnering with Kent Intermediate School District Career Readiness for a STEM & Construction training activity where educators will test out high-tech gadgets involved in commercial construction and meet with industry leaders.

“Educators will walk away with that and apply it to their classrooms,” said Amy Pierce-Danders, director of workforce development for the local ABC chapter. “What we’re trying to do is showcase the STEM focus of construction.”

Reaching students

For the local construction industry to be successful, it needs to do more outreach to students than simply trying to recruit them after high school, according to Pierce-Danders.

ABC has worked to get children interested in the industry beginning at the K-12 level. This is because the assumption that every high school student will go on to seek a four-year college degree is slowly changing, she added.

Educators also are more willing to take students on trades-based industry tours, and parents are attending events focused on learning about the trades, Pierce-Danders said. Gone are the days of showing a PowerPoint presentation to students; visits to schools now involve hands-on activities, bringing machinery or inviting guest speakers.

Another program called Jump Start allows young adults ages 18-25 to receive entry-level construction training. In 2017, 88 percent of participating students were hired immediately after completing the program, according to its website. The program is spearheaded by the Construction Workforce Development Alliance, which consists of three industry trade organizations and encourages young people to explore careers in the construction industry.

As well, interest in the construction industry is trending upward. According to data from the AGC, construction employment in September 2018 increased by 6.9 percent from December 2017 to 179,200 workers. However, employment levels were still  16 percent less than at the peak in Michigan in April 2000.

Industry leaders place more emphasis on opportunities to make money in the industry, especially as the cost of college grows more burdensome, and students have concerns about taking on too much debt.

Elzinga & Volkers’ Austin said the industry has “done a better job” talking openly about this.

“They’ll earn just as much if not more than those with higher education,” she said. “A lot of parents are most concerned with how they are going to support themselves. They can do that in construction and not have the debt, and have a great life and an enriching career.”

Read 2631 times Last modified on Tuesday, 10 September 2019 14:38
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