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Milwaukee metro construction looks to worker pipeline in restricted labor market

Construction unemployment is low and job openings are the highest they’ve been in 20 years, leading to a tight labor market in the Milwaukee area, according to the latest Wisconsin Policy Forum report. The state showed signs of a strong regional worker pipeline with an influx of apprentices, and the report suggested the industry should expand its efforts to diversify its workforce.

The report found while the demand for high-profile, large-scale projects rose in Milwaukee, the labor market in the construction industry has been more restricted with high labor demand and low unemployment.

“Construction employment in the Milwaukee area remained stable and even ticked upward during the pandemic, while unemployment in construction is near a historic low, and job openings in the sector are at a more than 20-year high,” the report said. Union construction workers are working more hours on average than a decade ago, and half of unions surveyed reported having fewer workers available.

A policy forum analysis found the number of hours union construction hours worked increased by 19.9% between 2012 and 2021, but the number of active workers increased by 3.2%.

Milwaukee metro construction

(Chart courtesy of the Wisconsin Policy Forum)

To quell the gap of available workers in the Milwaukee metro, contractors may have to lean on the apprenticeship pipeline. The state broke an apprenticeship record last fall with 15,000 active apprentices – the last time the number of trainees was this high was more than two decades ago.

In the Milwaukee area, active apprentices in the construction trades grew from 2,221 in 2000 to 3,040 in October of 2022, data from the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development showed.

However, the report produced a shaky picture of the state of apprenticeships as some trades reported low turnout. Five union groups — glazers, tile setters, roofers, bricklayers and iron workers —  reported their apprenticeship numbers fell by at least 17% in the last five years.

Milwaukee metro construction

(Chart courtesy of the Wisconsin Policy Forum)

While there was a robust pipeline of young workers in construction overall, some trades had limited supplies of young workers, insufficient interest in leadership roles among seasoned workers, or both, the report said. The roofers, painters and sheet metal workers said less than 10% of their active members were under the age of 30, and the sheet metal workers and roofers were among four unions with 10% of their workers over 60. At least 25% of active members in the carpenters and three other unions were in their 50s.

The Teamsters, painters, roofers, boilermakers and bricklayers said they didn’t have enough journey workers ready to succeed leadership roles as its workforce plans retirement, the report said. “The contractors we interviewed also cited a lack of interest in leadership roles as a significant workforce challenge they are experiencing,” the report added.

Projects under Milwaukee’s Residents Preference Program, which certifies workers who are city residents to work on city-supported projects, might suffer from the same worker crunch as the rest of the industry. The current program requires 40% of total hours spent on a public works project must be completed by qualified city residents.

More than 8,700 workers have been RPP-certified since 2012, but the number of newly certified workers incoming has been relatively low. In 2021, 420 new workers were certified under the program. Workers who are eligible don’t need to recertify, which makes it impossible to find how many are working in the local industry at any given time, the report added.

(Chart courtesy of the Wisconsin Policy Forum)

The report suggested workforce development agencies in charge of training workers and preparing them for RPP could help contractors meet workforce inclusion requirements if they are brought to the table earlier in the project development process.

As Milwaukee becomes more diverse, Hispanic representation in construction grew over the past 20 years, and the number of Black workers slid back after a few years of progress; women workers grew little. Hispanic workers made up 12.2% of all active workers in metro Milwaukee, while Black workers made up 5.6% and women made up 3.3% of apprenticeships.

(Chart courtesy of the Wisconsin Policy Forum)

Black workers made up more than 10% of active apprentices Milwaukee in 2007 before the number faltered after 2008. The number of women in construction apprenticeships was nearly flat between 2000 and 2022; only 3% of apprentices in Milwaukee were women. Also, the report found that more than half of Black workers cancel their apprenticeships before completion.

Because of the low numbers, the forum encouraged the industry and local leaders to step up its effort to remedy the problem. One possible strategy that emerged was to expand mentorship programs that pair apprentices of color and women apprentices with experienced workers of the same identities.

About Ethan Duran

Ethan Duran is the construction and development reporter at The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (414) 551-7505 or [email protected]

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