If the construction industry wants to close the skills gap it needs to take a broader view of the labor pool
By Allie Berenyi
I teach a one year residential construction program at a technical college in Madison, Wisconsin. The skills gap is very real here. Construction in the region is booming as the carpenters who remained on the job after the crash of ’08 are aging out of the business. We hear about the problem from local employers every day.
Of course, our program experiences the recruitment challenges that the trades everywhere are experiencing. With some creativity and open minds, though, we are currently training more than 50-70 students a year for careers in construction. This is nearly twice as many students as we were training in the years leading up to the ’08 crash. We’ve done this by reaching out to kids in high school tech-ed classes, but our recruitment strategy goes well beyond that pipeline.
As in every college town, Madison has an abundance of highly educated, but underemployed men and women who would love nothing more than to pick up a hammer and exercise their brains and bodies at the same time. Our program appeals to them because we emphasize building intelligently, with consideration to good design and the building science principles that inform the construction process and the materials we use. Adults that have degrees, but who are under employed or who are looking for a career change make up about 10-15% of our students.
Our town, while not as ethnically diverse as many larger cities, has significant Latino, Asian and African communities. People in these communities don’t necessarily look down on the trades in the way that some other communities can. In my experience, predominantly white communities want their kids to do “better” than working with their hands. Further, many people in immigrant communities are proud when they or their kids attend a technical college—they don’t need to be convinced of the value of a trades education. So, we reach out to these communities in the places where they gather—English classes, community centers, high school completion programs, the grocery stores where they work and shop. And once we have connected with one person in a community, we typically go on to see their friends and families enter our program. As a result of this outreach, our carpentry program is one of the most diverse programs around.
We’re also connecting with women who want to do this work for any number of familiar reasons—the work is satisfying, they can’t imagine life in a cubicle, the pay is good, and they want to use their brains and their hands. Unfortunately, because most women have never seen another woman in the trades, they assume there are none. We have three tradeswomen on our staff (two instructors and a recruitment specialist) and while I can’t prove causation, our classes have gone from having just an occasional female student to our current state where 25% of our students are women.
We are also training students who, though currently incarcerated, will soon be released into our community. Most of these people know that they will have a big strike against them when they re-enter the workforce. We train them to develop their skills so that an employer will simply need to hire them because they’re that qualified. Will they be the right fit for every job in the trades? Probably not, but hopefully, they will find employers who can look beyond their past.
What I’m suggesting is that there are plenty of people who want to learn a trade and who have the potential to become successful craftspeople, but the industry has got to get more creative about where they find workers and, in some cases, the job site will have to change to become more inclusive. I mean really Inclusive, not just tolerant, because does anyone really want to go to work each day only to be tolerated? Women, immigrants, people of color and the formerly incarcerated bring a range of insights, perspectives and skills that, in my experience, have enhanced the craft that we so love and have made the workplace a more interesting and fun place.
We’re not doing brain surgery out here in Madison, we’re just seeing that the trades cannot survive if their only practitioners are young, white dudes. We’re going out and finding people who have been overlooked by the trades for way too long and finding success by doing it.
Allie Berenyi is an instructor in the Construction & Remodeling Program at the Madison Area Technical College in Madison, WI.
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