Focus, Construction, and Human Resources

Industry assembles Construction Workforce Development Alliance

Goal is to get prospective employees educated and working in construction locally.

January 31, 2014
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Helping to get the CWDA off the ground are, from left, Charles Lane, Norm Brady, Benjamin Wickstrom, Linda Vos-Graham, Emily Siebert and Jacob Maas. Photo by Mike Nichols

What do you do when work-force development challenges, a negative image and overall economic peril knock at your industry’s door?

You form an alliance.

A new major collaborative effort on behalf of West Michigan’s construction industry is dawning. Three industry titans and their partners have joined forces, assembling as a team in an effort to make a radical impact on marketing and educating the area about the construction industry and its growing job opportunities.

According to the initiatives of the new alliance, the team’s goal is to “develop and implement a plan to redefine the image of construction and to promote career opportunities within the industry.”

The initiative is called the Construction Workforce Development Alliance of West Michigan. Its main three membership groups are the Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids, the American Subcontractor Association of Michigan, and Associated Builders and Contractors of West Michigan.

In a roundtable interview with the Grand Rapids Business Journal, Emily Siebert, executive officer at HBAGGR; Linda Vos-Graham, president of Vos Glass; Benjamin Wickstrom, president of Erhardt Construction; Charles Lane, vice president of Iron Works Inc.; Norm Brady, president and CEO of West Michigan’s chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors; and Jacob Maas, executive director of Michigan Works!, sat down to discuss the new venture.

“We have the goal of improving the image of our industry and making sure we’re communicating the benefits of a career in our industry,” Brady said. “We’re also making sure scholarship opportunities are available for young folks who would consider this industry as a career path.”

Like many West Michigan collaborations of recent years, this one had roots in the Great Recession. Although no industry is recession-proof, the construction industry especially felt it, said Wickstrom.

“It was the state of the economy,” Lane said. “Everything got hit heavily. It was the nature of the economy, not the industry.”

Now, however, the economy has bounced back. The construction industry has made a comeback too, say the alliance members. There’s a tremendous need right now for skilled laborers, said Vos-Graham. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is about to release a report stating that projects in the construction industry will add 1,839,000 jobs nationally by 2020, she said. As the jobs are added and as an aging work force leaves the industry, a major employment gap is created.

If left unaddressed, this gap will develop into a long-term issue for the construction industry, especially at the local level, Wickstrom said. Members of the CWDA are already beginning to recognize signs of it in their own companies.

“All three associations and its members are at the same time feeling a labor crunch in the industry. We all feel that developing and training a skilled work force sufficient to keep up with the growth and demands of our industry is probably one of the most important things facing our industry right now,” Wickstrom said.

Part of the problem comes from a lack of marketing by the industry, the alliance said. There’s a perception that construction is low paying and seasonal, neither of which is the case anymore, especially with modern technology, Lane said.

“With many schools having dropped shop classes … you don’t see people come out of high school that have had any taste of using power tools, reading tape measures, doing anything construction people do,” he said. “That’s what part of our core curriculum will be: to put that back in the students.”

This all comes at a time when the construction industry is evolving, Wickstrom said, and that’s rare. Historically, the industry has been one of the slowest to improve, innovate and advance in terms of technology and practices, he said.

“It’s a slower industry to be adapted because the way it’s been done has always worked,” Wickstrom said. “Now there’s a lot of us that are embracing change, embracing technology and doing things in a new way. The perceptions young people probably have of our industry no longer apply.”

Based on this context, the CWDA team has two objectives: market and train to employ in West Michigan.

The first order of business in terms of marketing is to create a website that will serve as a resource for anyone needing an “in” to the industry. If you Google “construction careers in West Michigan,” not much comes up, Siebert said. Soon, that won’t be the case. The new website will have job listings, industry statistics and informational resources for parents and students interested in construction education opportunities.

The website, funded by the three CWDA members, will cost about $10,000 and is about three months away from completion.

The second order of business — and certainly the most ambitious part of the CWDA’s plan — is to develop an educational construction curriculum and certification through ABC and Grand Rapids Community College that could eventually be used in community colleges across West Michigan. This initiative is called the Construction Core Certification.

“When we were putting this curriculum together, one of the things that was important to us is that we keep it to an overall duration so that there could be a quick turnaround for employment opportunity for students in the class,” Wickstrom said.

A CCC pilot program that includes 17 entry-level employees of the three CWDA members kicked off Jan. 17 at the Michigan Works! M-TECH Service Center, 622 Godfrey Ave. SW, Grand Rapids. A jumpstart CCC program is scheduled to begin in early June.

The certification program includes 96 hours of training and 12 modules designed to offer full training in residential and retail construction.

“The pilot program is in place and goes two nights a week (Monday and Wednesday) for about four months,” Brady said. “Then comes the scholarship program, which is all the same courses, but M-TECH has said (it) can deliver that on a full-time basis and get that 96 hours done in three weeks. … At the end of the three weeks, we guarantee that every student from that scholarship program will have a minimum of two interviews for full-time employment with members of our respective associations.”

Anyone interested in signing up for the modules will be able to do so at grcc.edu/grccfoundation.

Vos-Graham — who Brady said was the impetus behind the training concept — said she expects the courses to fill quickly. The graduates will not only be certified but also have access to job interviews at the hundreds of organizations represented by CWDA. There are also plans to have a career day.

“The three associations have put a group of people together to go through the program, but now we’ve actually taken it the next level to where we are going to have a jumpstart program in the summer with graduating high schools that will be fully funded with the help of Michigan Works! and these trade organizations that will now round out a full scholarship for entry level people,” she said.

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