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Idle industry split on training time

Dustin Block
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George Seater Jr. cannot find work for his best employees. Now, he said, is not the time to mentor apprentices.

“It’s tough to train somebody if you don’t have enough work to keep them on site,” said Seater, president of Seater Construction Co. Inc., Racine.

Building industry workers, from architects to laborers, have time on their hands in a recession that has ground building projects to a halt. Some are using this as an opportunity for training and improving skills, while others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Graduate school applications for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban

Planning are up 25 percent this spring, said Tammy Taylor, the school’s undergraduate adviser. She said that might reflect an economy forcing nearly every major architectural firm to lay off employees in recent months.

The number of interviews for graduating students — for jobs or internships — were down this year compared to the last several, Taylor said.

“We’ve been hearing from more alums than in the past,” she said. “They’re looking for work.”

Architect John Holz, an associate at Milwaukee-based Plunkett Raysich Architects LLP, organized an annual training seminar in March that drew a record crowd. The slow economy likely gave some architects time to earn some continuing-education credits for their certifications, he said. It was also an opportunity for out-of-work architects to network and develop skills.

“A fair share of the folks were there to maintain sharpness and acuity,” Holz said. “It’s a chance to demonstrate to any future employers that they’re not just sitting on their hands.”

But while the architectural field turns to graduate school and seminars, building associations are reporting declines in their training programs. Laura Cataldo, director of marketing for the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin, said training is slow among contractors.

“We do see some companies doing a little more training,” she said, “but a lot more companies are being very, very conservative in their spending.”

Cindi Gruebling, director of safety and education for the Wisconsin Builders Association, said enrollment in WBA’s training workshops is down this year. The economy and increasing competition have cut into the association’s training market, she said.

Gruebling said online training courses are gaining in popularity, but she questioned their effectiveness. She said WBA’s programs teach specifically to Wisconsin’s new Uniform Dwelling Code and put builders in touch with state experts who offer demonstrations and respond to questions.

Online classes, while at times cheaper and more convenient, may not offer the same experience, Gruebling said.

Devin Rains, an instructor with the Madison Area Technical College, said UDC classes are popular. He reported an increase in requests for classes on changes to the code as the April 1 deadline approaches.

But Seater said general-worker training is nonexistent in the current economy. Right now, he said, he’s just trying to get his experienced hands paid and suspects younger workers will have to leave the field to find a job.

Holz said that happened among architects in the early 1990s when the economy slumped and people left for related fields such as computer programming and graphic design. That resulted in few architects between 45 and 48 years old working in the field, he said.

“There’s an actual age gap,” Holz said. “We could have that again … and have half a generation not in architecture.”

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