How to build a workforce for builders
People need good, stable jobs. The construction industry needs good, motivated people.
That’s the simple logic behind Construction Careers Pathways, an initiative jointly developed by the Construction Careers Foundation, trade unions, construction companies, high schools, nonprofits, the state of Minnesota, and other strategic partners. Their aim is to attract more young people to construction careers such as electricians, plumbers, welders, sheet metal workers, carpenters, ironworkers, and pipefitters.
The effort is intended to address “a huge need in the marketplace,” said Pat Wagner, director of the St. Paul-based Construction Careers Foundation, a nonprofit formed in 2003.
A recent, national survey by the Associated General Contractors of America revealed that nearly 80 percent of construction businesses in Minnesota are having difficulty finding qualified craft labor. As baby boomers reach retirement age, the industry is “starting to see some labor shortages,” said Don Mullen, executive secretary of the St. Paul Building and Construction Trades Council, one of the organizations partnering with the foundation.
To address that need, the foundation wants to inform the next generation and their influencers (parents, guidance counselors and teachers) about construction careers as well-paying alternatives to college and student loan debt.
Wagner said the effort includes a focus on reaching groups who may have been historically underrepresented in the skilled trades, including women, veterans, and people of color.
The Construction Careers Pathways initiative has developed a paid summer construction internship for selected Twin Cities high schoolers, 16 and older. Participants in the Minnesota Trades Academy receive instruction at local union trade centers and try activities like plumbing, pipefitting and electrical work, “so they can see what the work is,” said Gary Thaden, president of the Minnesota Mechanical Contractors Association.
The initiative has developed several other programs, including:
- Kids at Work, a summer experience for students in grades 4-9 combining fun and games related to science, technology, engineering and math with hands-on activities focused on the building trades industry.
- Construct Tomorrow, which provides hands-on educational opportunities for high school youth in the building and construction trades statewide.
- The Building Minnesota Apprenticeship Program, an entry-level, multi-craft training program for adult women, veterans and members of minority and immigrant groups who historically have been underrepresented in the construction trades.
- Helmets to Hardhats, which recruits, retains, assists and supports National Guard, reserve, and active duty military members’ and veterans’ participation in construction trades apprenticeship programs.
The initiative’s website — ConstructionCareers.org — offers descriptions of 30 construction careers, with pathways showing how young adults can enter the industry through recruiting events, internships and trade union apprenticeship programs.
Wagner said the Construction Careers Foundation’s effort has been well-received by the groups it targets. Generally, the current generation of young people “is very ‘kinesthetic’ — they love working with their minds and their hands,” Wagner said. “Everything we do is focused on providing ‘hands-on’ experiences.”
Along with the summer program, the Construction Careers Pathways initiative also involves working with high schools “to bring construction curriculum back into the schools,” Wagner said. For example, some schools have started offering welding instruction. Along with the skilled trades, the program also provides information on related careers such as construction management, estimating, architecture and engineering.
The program began in 2015 at four sites: Bloomington College and Career Academy; Minneapolis Roosevelt High School; St Paul Central High School, and the White Bear Lake Alternative Learning Center. Today, it’s being offered at nine more campuses or districts: Eagan High School, Forest Lake, Irondale/Mounds View, Lakeville, Roseville, South St. Paul, White Bear Lake North and South, and Humboldt.
This year, five crews with 15 students each are participating in the summer program. The Construction Careers Foundation eventually wants to expand the program beyond the Twin Cities to outstate Minnesota, Wagner said.
Wagner said Lah Htoo, a senior at Como Park Senior High School, is an example of the type of student the program is designed to reach.
Htoo, who came to the United States from Myanmar with his parents in 2009, spent two summers participating in the Minnesota Trades Academy. Htoo said the program opened his eyes to career possibilities in the building trades and helped him decide on a direction. He plans to pursue a degree in civil engineering, first at Century College and then the University of Minnesota, to prepare for a career in construction.
Thaden said the outreach efforts might already be having an impact. He has observed an upswing in interest in the construction trades. “Some of the apprenticeship programs [in the Twin Cities] have had many more applications than they have openings,” Thaden said.