Pandemic accelerates possibilities for a construction career

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Despite a turbulent year marked by a global pandemic, construction groups are still working to reach students.

For many trades, it’s paramount to find the next generation of workers as many in the industry continue to reach retirement age. And although the construction industry had a shortfall of new talent even before the pandemic, many contractors say the need for workers is even greater now.

In a survey of 22 large Wisconsin contractors released in early September, 90% of the respondents said they were hiring. And two-thirds of those firms said they had raised wages to attract more workers, according to the survey, conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America.

Dan Large, training director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 494, said the union is working to interest students in prospective careers as electricians. There’s money to be made, Large said, and he’s trying to introduce as many students as possible to the trade.

“There might be some students that might love it and there might be some students that don’t love it at all,” he said. “It’s all about opening eyes and opportunities to students in the younger generation.”

Large said Local 494 recently started a pre-apprenticeship program to engage high school students before they enter a formal apprenticeship program.

Although the pandemic has forced many of the union’s outreach programs behind a computer screen, Large said the union is this year bringing back in-person orientation sessions in various school districts.

Large said there’s plenty of opportunity in the trades for a student who enjoys hands-on work. He suggested that students interested in a career in construction explore many different trades to get a feel for which ones might suit them best.

“Don’t just assume you’ll like a particular field,” Large said. “Right now is the perfect time to explore different career opportunities.”

Other training programs are also working through the need this past year to make much instruction virtual. The Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin, which runs training programs for a dozen different trades, moved its classes online as the pandemic emerged, and then moved to socially distanced learning and hybrid instruction as restrictions were lifted in some places.

The apprenticeship program at ABC works with 1,800 students around the state at 11 different technical colleges. In response to the pandemic, the mostly non-union trade group has moved several features online, including its onboarding procedure, which should now be easier to use for students coming into the program, said Leigh Emrick, ABC apprenticeship director.

Start your welding career“This pandemic is going to stay with us for a very long time,” she said. “Shutdowns and fear of another potential virus will dictate how colleges operate and hence, impact our delivery. We have to be ready for this and we are.”

Many construction training programs moved quickly to engage students as schools went virtual. Doug Volland, an outreach specialist with the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, enlisted his 13-year-old daughter to teach him how to use Zoom early in the pandemic.

“It was kind of cool to be able to learn from her,” he said.

Likewise, Volland’s colleague, Jim Anderson, doesn’t expect he’ll see the end of virtual meetings entirely. But the carpenters union is still adapting some of its programming in response to COVID requirements that are likely to shift over the next several months – including by offering virtual tours of its training center.

The union has developed its own curriculum for high schools to teach carpentry to students. Volland and Anderson often make presentations to career fairs various schools. And the union runs a pre-apprenticeship program to prepare students for careers as carpenters.

The union in 2019 also started a so-called Signing Day for students who had recently completed the pre-apprenticeship program. At the end of the school year, the union and an instructor bring students together with employers they’ll work for over the summer. It’s one part of the union’s work to introduce students to employers early on.

The union held the event virtually last year, but it still drew dozens of attendees to cheer the group of kids as they were picked for their summer job.

“We think the construction industry should be celebrated just as much as any other profession,” Anderson said.

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