Government, Higher Education, and Technology

GRCC program addresses public works shortage

Seven-week training course covers positions such as building specialist, engineering technician, equipment operator.

July 13, 2018
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The first group of 10 students completed a seven-week public works training pilot launched to address growing needs for workers in those areas, said Julie Parks, executive director of GRCC Workforce Training.

Parks said GRCC was approached by the Grand Rapids and Kentwood public works departments and West Michigan members of the American Public Works Association about creating the program.

She said more than half of the current public works workforce is looking at retirement in the next five years.

John Gorney, director of public works for the city of Kentwood, said his colleagues around the state are having trouble finding new skilled talent to take these jobs.

He said 10 years ago, an open position would receive about 100 applications. Now, posted positions often receive no applicants.

And when they do receive applicants, those people often do not have the right qualifications, which Gorney attributes to a period of time when schools did away with offering trades classes in high school.

He also said the public works industry, at a national level, has not done well promoting itself, which it is now trying to change.

Gorney said the drop in the number of applicants has a lot to do with success of the economy. When the economy is doing well, people can obtain higher-paying jobs. But since public works needs are constant, those jobs are in higher demand during a poor economy, such as in 2008. The starting wage for public works jobs is around $16 per hour, Gorney said.

“Sewer cleaning is not sexy, but it’s so important and necessary for everyday living,” Gorney said.

With these issues at hand, Gorney was among those who decided it was time to take action.

“We had all these ideas, but it was connecting with GRCC pointing us in a direction and helping us define goals and curriculum,” he said.

The seven-week course covered a general overview of public works fields, which contained information Gorney said would take two years to learn in a job.

Some of the information covered included an overview of positions, such as building specialist, engineering technician, equipment operator, fleet services technician, plant assistant, safety specialist, truck driver and maintenance worker for utilities, streets, grounds and buildings.

Professionals in the public works industry partnered with GRCC during the course, offering tours and information about specific jobs, as well as mock interviews and then real job interviews once the students earned certifications.

Partners included public works departments for Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Grand Haven, as well as the road commissions from Kent, Muskegon and Van Buren counties, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the civil engineering company Prein&Newhof and Rowe Professional Services.

Chuncey Wells is one of the students who graduated from the program and now is interviewing for jobs.

“The reason why I joined the course is not only to learn what public works was but to try to advance myself and broaden my future,” Wells said.

Wells, 47, worked in a factory that printed books for a Christian publishing company, but with the rise of e-books, jobs in that industry are disappearing, he said.

He hopes to find a job working in utilities, with the goal of rising through the ranks and becoming a supervisor.

Now that the pilot is finished, GRCC and the public works leaders involved are slated to meet to analyze the program.

Gorney’s goal is for GRCC to offer a second class with more specialized training, with a long-term goal of offering a degree in public works.

Parks said she is not sure yet exactly when the next course will be offered, though she plans to have the program available as long as there is a need.

A high school diploma or GED is recommended for the course. Otherwise, the student must be able to earn a bronze-level National Career Readiness Certification to show they have the foundational skills ready for the class, Parks said.

Because of a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, academy participants paid only $25.

Gorney said it is important for leaders in this industry to take action now in creating the talent needed for these “vital” positions.

“I think that, especially because the economy is good right now, the other communities that are not proactive will struggle in finding people,” he said.

“If they do find them, they will likely not be qualified for the jobs.”

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