Taking a drive around the region, it’s clear that the construction industry has bounced back from the Great Recession that knocked the wind out of it 10 years ago.
What hasn’t quite come back are the skilled workers the industry needs to keep up with the demand. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows a loss of 2,231 workers from the construction industry in Wisconsin since the recession, about 20 percent of whom entered manufacturing.
With those workers ensconced in new careers and others retiring out of construction, a steady growth in demand for new properties is placing a crunch on contractors.
“There are so many companies out there — not just the homebuilder/general contractors themselves, but framing contractors, plumbers, electricians — all of the associated or affiliated companies that work within our industry are all in need of skilled labor,” says Mari McAllister-Charles, executive officer for the Brown County Home Builders Association.
When the recession hit full force, a lot of family-owned construction companies told the younger generation it was probably time to look elsewhere for employment, she says. “So we lost a whole pool of that family transition during that time.”
While that intergenerational transition likely will rebound, there’s still a need for additional help. Many local employers have been willing to take on and train minimally qualified employees or send them for additional classes, she says.
“We’ve talked to some companies about how they need to potentially get creative in helping new employees — maybe help them pay off student loan debt,” McAllister-Charles says. “I think we’re at a point where becoming a little more creative in how you’re recruiting and retaining employees is becoming a necessity.”
One new creative pathway is the possible formation of a construction industry alliance, like the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, says Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board.
“They look at the manufacturing alliance and suddenly they’re saying, ‘wait a minute, NEWMA has tripled or quadrupled the number of welding students in 10 years — we need to get that model working for us,’” Golembeski says.
Cheri Galecke, director of human resources for DeLeers Construction, and Elise Opicka, director of human resources for BOE Group, in November approached Golembeski, who was instrumental in the creation of NEWMA.
“We all know what a success the manufacturing alliance has been,” Galecke says. “The things (NEWMA director) Ann Franz has done with them has just been wonderful. That’s really our goal, is to be able to build something that would be similar.”
As members of the advisory taskforce for Green Bay West High School’s Bridges Construction & Renovation program, Galecke and Opicka “began talking years ago about how are we going to get more kids involved — what are we going to do for the future workforce?” Galecke says.
One day Franz came in to talk about NEWMA, telling the story of how EMT International owner Paul Rauscher recognized the problem of a retiring workforce. “We said, ‘OK, well, we have to do this, too.’”
As with the manufacturing industry, Galecke says the problem may not necessarily be as much a shortage of workers but that the industry needs to better demonstrate the available opportunities.
“We have accountants, we have salespeople, estimators, project managers — all of those things,” Galecke says. It’s also about working with educators and parents as influencers and “getting in front of more of those people to educate them more about the industry.”
Paul Soletski, owner of Bay Lakes Builders & Development and president of BCHBA, agrees that rebounding the perception of construction as a career will help get more students in that pipeline.
“We had this long recession — any parent that had a kid active in the industrial arts program in high school and had aspirations about getting into the trades was probably talked out of it,” Soletski says. “What parent is going to encourage their kid to get into an industry where they’re seeing friends and family losing their jobs?”
Soletski’s small family-owned company builds primarily residential and light commercial properties throughout the New North, including the vacation market in Door County. Soletski’s subcontractors — electricians, heating technicians, plumbers — are all looking for help. “These guys are all struggling as we are,” he says.
An industry alliance might be a good pathway to helping solve the construction talent gap, like with the manufacturing alliance.
“Looking at the homebuilding industry in Green Bay, we’re more unique than a larger metropolitan area,” Soletski says. “We’re all just small companies and a lot of husband-and-wife teams. It is kind of a unique industry — everybody’s got to continue to work together.”
The manufacturing industry came together quite readily — “they figured out early on that working together was better than competing with each other,” Golembeski says, but other industries have had a harder time coming together, including construction, “because they do compete with each other for jobs so vociferously.”
The competition is certainly there, “but I think at some point, we as the employers in the industry have to get over that and say we’re all in this together,” Galecke says.
Some students are already noticing the potential for construction as a career. Jeff Schlag, carpentry instructor at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, leads a 30-week course that simulates a job site, putting students to work constructing small buildings for area nonprofits. The class has built cottages for Camp Daniel in Athelstane and the Happily Ever After no-kill animal shelter in Marion, for example.
The program has 14 students with a prospective 18 for next year — with a waiting list of 10 more. “This is the first time this has happened in a number of years,” Schlag says. NWTC leaders have been talking about adding a second session, which would double capacity, and Schlag has been getting ready for it.
“Every part of the trades right now is in need,” he says. “Framers are really in high demand. Finished carpenters are in high demand, and everyone in between. Everyone is in need.”
While the recession took a toll on the number of available workers, part of the loss simply is coming from older workers who are retiring, he says. Promoting the industry at the K-12 level can help encourage the next generation to enter the field.
“I think it’s got to start in middle school, to get ahead of these guys right away at that point, just to show them that it’s an opportunity that they can easily go into,” Schlag says. “They don’t need to go to a four-year college — you can save all that debt and make money in less than nine months.”