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Industry trainers fear stimulus gap

Sean Ryan

People who train workers in the construction trades worry their  program graduates will suffer if development does not recuperate before stimulus money runs out.

The city of Milwaukee is getting money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to pay for projects and train city residents to be construction workers. The workers in training programs will get their experience on stimulus-backed projects, such as weatherizing homes, renovating foreclosed properties or removing lead from buildings, said Donald Sykes, president and CEO of the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board.

Sykes said he is being realistic, not pessimistic, when he wonders what future the workers will have if there is not enough private demand for such projects after stimulus money is gone.

“There is a fear that this thing could fall off a cliff in two years,” he said.

There already are more workers who want to get into construction than there are job opportunities for apprentices, said Linda Sowell, director of diversity for Gilbane Building Corp. and a member of the Milwaukee work force board. In the short term, training organizations can prepare workers for projects, such as the reconstruction of Interstate 94, that are getting a lot of stimulus money, she said.

“We know Milwaukee has a long history of providing well-qualified workers,” she said, “but we need the projects to make that happen.”

Milwaukee’s construction training will emphasize work that makes buildings more energy efficient, Sykes said. The city will use a portion of a $1.5 million grant from the state to create the new Milwaukee Builds program to train people to build and renovate houses.

Sykes said the energy-efficiency projects will become a larger part of private construction work, but it might not happen before the two-year stimulus boom dissipates. To build on the momentum, government agencies might need to require buildings become more efficient, he said.

“I think it’s going to be a combination of public policy, again, that’s going to drive a lot of this as we begin to deal with our environment,” Sykes said. “I don’t think it is going to be big money right away.”

Regardless of whether the jobs are available in the short term, builders must keep their training programs rolling to be prepared for the inevitable recovery, said Mike Fabishak, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of Milwaukee Inc. Shutting down training efforts means the training agencies will fall apart, and the trainees will not be available when builders finally need them.

“The (training) infrastructure needs to be there because when things begin to change, you could get a degree of velocity and trajectory that implies there is a considerable amount of need in a short time,” said Fabishak, chairman of the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/Building and Industry Group Skilled Trades Employment Program’s Center for Excellence.

Fabishak said training organizations such as WRTP/BIG STEP should keep in touch with trained workers to avoid losing them.

“That’s a little dicey because people may find other opportunities and even their interest in this industry wanes,” he said. “But I don’t see any other opportunity to do that.”

Sykes said he wonders if the federal government should create a second round of stimulus spending to bridge a gap between public and private construction booms.

“All of that stuff is coming,” he said. “But whether or not we’re going to meet the need of the people we’re working with right now is hard to say.”

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