Global pandemic or not, the construction industry has not ceased struggling with its labor shortage.
So even as the coronavirus outbreak has shut down large swaths of the economy, Elizabeth Roddy, director of recruitment and training at the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, is as busy as ever trying to find contractors to take on students through the state’s Youth Apprenticeship Program. In March, Roddy sent out at an email to ABC of Wisconsin members seeking contractors that are willing to take on more than 50 potential youth apprentices enrolled in the Franklin, Greendale, Greenfield, St. Francis and Whitnall school districts.
Since first being offered to construction companies in the fall of 2014, youth apprenticeships have allowed students of high-school age — primarily juniors and seniors — to gain experience on actual jobsites working under the supervision of career tradespeople. The program lets them earn high school credit while preparing to enter a full-on registered apprenticeship shortly after graduation. Child-labor laws are waived to give students under 18 a chance to perform certain types of work that they couldn’t otherwise on construction sites. Most importantly, participants are given a taste at an early age of what construction work is all about.
“Some will find that they feel they are meant for this industry and go into a registered apprenticeship,” Roddy said. “Some will say, ‘I tried it out, and it’s not for me.’ But they figure it out soon.
This is a great opportunity for, say, someone who might be wondering if he or she should go into nursing or construction. They get an opportunity in high school to try out a career before they decide to go to college or not go to college.”
Wisconsin’s Youth Apprenticeship Program is administered by the state Department of Workforce Development. Since the state’s 2014-15 fiscal year, participation figures for the construction program have gone from 85 to 552, according to the DWD’s website.
Roddy said the hard part is finding high schools that have strong trades and technical instruction and then lining them up with contractors that are willing to take on youth apprentices. It does little good, she said, to have teachers talking about the benefits of youth apprenticeship if there are no contractors that are then willing to take on students.
“Contractors need to realize if we don’t get these students on the boat and try to hire people who are under 18 into our industry, other industries will,” Roddy said. “We are competing against other industries. And we have got to get in the game and play it.”
Roddy noted that the average age of people coming into the trades remains 27. That number will have to come down, she said, if the industry is ever to make a serious dent in its labor shortage.
One contractor that has gotten a lot out of the Youth Apprenticeship program is Stevens Construction, of Madison. Dena Gullickson, human resources manager for the company, said Stevens works regularly with high schools in the Madison and Milwaukee areas to find students who want to try their hand at construction.
Gullickson said Stevens has five youth apprentices, from four different schools, this year. She said she has found students are much more likely to hear about the benefits of the trades from people their own age than adults.
“It’s one thing for me to talk to a classroom of students,” she said, “but to have them acutally take a jobsite tour and become part of that crew, they start seeing it through a whole different lens.
And then what we found is that, after a few weeks, they kind of help us promote construction as a potential career. And it’s just a whole differnet sales pitch.”
Gullickson said youth apprenticeships are just as useful to students who find the trades aren’t for them as they are for those who do ultimately take a liking to the industry. It’s far better, she said, to learn when in school that you are not cut out for something than when you have to rely on it for a paycheck.
Another contractor that has benefited from the program is Dave Jones Inc., a mechanical contractor based in Madison. Nicole Frank, human resources manager at the company, said Dave Jones has so far hired 31 students through the Youth Apprenticeship Program. The first one to come on board, she said, is now on the verge of completing his registered apprenticeship and become a journeyman sprinkler fitter.
She said youth apprenticeships have proved particularly valuable at a time when so many school districts are cutting shop classes and technical instruction.
“So many of these programs have been eliminated in the high shcools,” Frank said. “In the past, students might have been in shop class working with tools and parts. Now they can work alongside a trade professional to be groomed and find their passions.”
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, Stevens has decided to cease having students come to jobsites. Nothing says all contractors have to follow suit, though. Individual companies can decide if they want to press on with the program after adopting social-distancing policies and other precautions.
Roddy said she understands that the coronavirus outbreak will remain many contractors’ primary short-term concern. Even so, she said, construction officials should not lose sight of the long-term consequences of the labor shortage.
During the last big economic downturn, more than a decade ago, the industry lost thousands of workers and has struggled ever since to replace those work hours. Now, Roddy said, is the time to take steps to prevent a recurrence.
“I think people know we can’t go through another recession like 2008, where lost a huge chunk of our workforce,” he said. “There might a little hesitation. But whether or not an employer wants to commit to anything, people need to realize they still have work on their books.”