Building opportunities for U.P. students to enter the construction trades

As any construction company or contractor will tell you, well-trained, skilled construction workers are hard to come by these days.

According to an annual report from the Associated General Contractors of America (ACG), 88 percent of firms report struggling to find enough qualified workers. 
The problem is hitting residential construction especially hard.

“Fewer construction students are going into residential construction these days,” said Sarah Foster, CEO of the Home Builders Association of the U.P (HBA of the U.P.). “The majority of today’s construction students are starting to work for larger construction companies, mostly on the commercial side.”

Home Builders Association of the U.P. Construction trades age chart. Federal funding policies are partly to blame, said Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and workforce at the ACG. A majority of federal support goes to college prep programs. 

“For every dollar the federal government invests in career and technical education — which includes programs to expose students to careers in construction — it spends five dollars encouraging students to go to college,” Turmail explained. This signals to schools and parents that college is more important than entering the trades, he said. 

There is a pressing need for more training, he said. “We think having more high school training programs will absolutely help encourage more people to pursue high-paying construction careers,” Turmail said. “That is why we have been actively pushing Congress to boost funding for measures like the Perkins Act, which funds construction education programs at the high school level.” 

Training programs in the U.P.

Several programs in the U.P. are providing more training to encourage high school and college students to consider entering the construction trades. 

The Upper Peninsula Construction Council (UPCC) holds a building trades summer camp for high school students, to attract them to that line of work. The UPCC is a non-profit labor management organization that supports union contractors and trades workers across the U.P. 

This year, the building trades summer camp is scheduled for July 8-August 14 in Iron Mountain. Funded by UPCC members and contractors, the camp is free for students.

In collaboration with Upper Peninsula Michigan Works!, a state agency that provides workforce development and job placement support, the UPCC summer camp includes six weeks of on-the-job training to teach students the skills of various building trades, including carpentry, iron work, metal work, welding, painting, plumbing, electrical work and boiler making. 

As an incentive, they get paid for their work. Participating students are paid $12 an hour to learn and practice building trades skills. The program mirrors the earn-while-you-learn structure of union apprenticeships.

The incentive seems to work. Last summer, 29 high school students participated in the summer camp. Thirty percent of them were female. 

UPCC executive director Mike Smith developed the program in his previous role as AFL-CIO labor liaison. The project moved to the UPCC when Smith came there as executive director.

“Current and future economic forecasts are projecting increased demand for skilled labor across the Upper Peninsula, so we are creating awareness of the construction trades and recruiting apprentices,” Smith said. 

“Recruiting more apprentices will give us an increased capacity to respond to the construction needs of industry and local communities in the Upper Peninsula,” he went on to say. “We will also impact the financial well-being of our communities through family-sustaining wages and benefits.”

The construction trades offer a debt-free pathway to a rewarding career for those who desire to work with their hands and their minds, Smith noted. “We are offering them a career, not just a job. They will have the ability to work, raise a family and retire with dignity.” 

Universities and school systems are also working to plug the hole in the construction worker labor force. 

Northern Michigan University (NMU) in Marquette offers two degree programs in construction: a two-year associate’s degree in building technology and a four-year bachelor’s degree in construction management. 

Northern Michigan UniversityA construction technology student at Northern Michigan University.According to NMU’s career and technical education website, building technology graduates are prepared to go into careers such as general contractor, carpenter, building inspector, building maintenance technician, material salesperson, concrete finisher, construction foreman, assistant estimator or surveyor. 

NMU’s construction management program offers building technology graduates the opportunity to study higher level theory, critical thinking and problem solving-based concepts. Graduates find jobs as construction managers, said Heidi Blanck, a professor of construction management at NMU.

The St. Clair County Regional Educational Services Agency (SCCRESA) also operates a successful construction trades training as part of its state-approved career and technical education program.

“We provide technical, academic and employability skills training to support students in being successful when they enter the workforce,” said Lesley Murphy, principal of SCCRESA’s career and technical education program. 

The two-year construction trades program is for St. Clair County high school juniors and seniors. First-year students attend training at SCCRESA’s technical education center for half their school day. There, they receive fundamental training in different facets of construction trades, including carpentry — both rough and finish —electrical work, exterior finishes, masonry, plumbing and roofing. Second-year students are placed with contractors in the community for a work-based learning experience. 

Forty-eight first-year students and 40 second-year students participate in the program. “We work with a large number of local contractors in order to support 40 students being placed out in a work-based learning experience,” Murphy said. An average of 95-100 percent of the students find jobs in the construction trades after high school, she added. 

In the western U.P., a career and technical education program run by the Copper Country Intermediate School District is also training high school students for construction careers. In its construction technology program, participants learn how to build a house, from plans to completion. 

“We would love to see more high school students applying for jobs with our residential builders and going to jobsites during the summer of their junior year of high school, or as soon as they can,” said the HBA of the U.P.’s CEO Foster. “We would love to see more and more students interested in the carpentry skills for home building like finish carpentry. There are so many fine-tuned specific skills when it comes to not just building the skeleton of the house but finishing it on the inside and making a bare house a home.”

The HBA of the U.P now gives sign-on bonuses to students who get hired on with our residential builders,” she added.

Growing need for new construction workers 

As industry and the need for housing grows across the Upper Peninsula, the importance of skilled construction workers and contractors will also grow, said the UPCC’s Smith. 

As baby boomers leave the industry, the need for apprentices continues to grow, Smith said. “To compound the need to attract and retain talent, in the next seven years 40 percent of those currently working with the tools will be eligible to retire,” he pointed out.

“The average age of a residential builder today is about 58 years old. More and more are retiring,” Foster said. 

High school and college construction trades programs can prepare young people for apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are one good way to enter the construction trades, although there are other paths into this kind of work. Most construction workers have not gone through apprenticeship training, according to the AGC’s Turmail.

There are many apprenticeships available in the U.P., more than labor unions can fill. Funding can help. For example, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 906, based in Marquette and serving the entire Upper Peninsula, has just received a $276,000 grant from the Going PRO Talent Fund, to support electrician apprenticeships in the U.P. The State Department of Labor and Opportunity makes these awards to employers to help them train, develop and retain current and newly hired workers. Michigan Works! administers the grants. 

As training programs like those offered by the UPCC, NMU, SCCRESA and the Copper Country Intermediate School District’s Career and Technical Education work to address the shortage of skilled construction trades workers, the building trades in the U.P. can look forward to more well-trained young people entering the workforce. 

Jennifer Donovan is a reporter with more than 40 years of experience on daily newspapers, magazines and university writing and editing. She is retired as director of news and media relations at Michigan Technological University and lives in Houghton.
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