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Developing a workforce for the future

by Chris Martin
workforce development is being addressed by KCA members collaboratively

Workforce development remains an impactful challenge facing the industry. Last year, 64 percent of commercial construction companies surveyed by the Keystone Contractors Association said they expected to increase their team in the field, with 35 percent expecting to expand their professional staff.

Filling those jobs requires a commitment to developing a workforce, and the industry and its partners haven’t let the COVID-19 pandemic get in the way. Union apprenticeships and high school and college programs have adapted to recruit and train the next generation, often with help from professionals volunteering their time.

workforce development takes many forms

“They’re our future. They’re going to be the people who are working alongside us in a few short years,” said Allison Hanna, a landscape architect with Snyder Secary & Associates in Harrisburg who coordinates the ACE Mentor Program in Cumberland County. “The more that they know, the better off it is for us in the future.”

The free after-school program exposes high school students to careers in the architecture, construction, and engineering fields, including skilled trades. Chapters always are looking for volunteer mentors. It’s particularly impactful when former student participants such as Hanna return as mentors once they are established in their careers.

Mentors tell students about what they do and the skills they use. Students then design a project. In the most-recent program, which was held virtually and wrapped up in March, about 60 students designed their own tiny home. It’s rewarding to watch the shy students who start the program confidently present final projects at the end, Hanna said.

In March 2018, Mascaro Construction in Pittsburgh donated $500,000 to the Community College of Beaver County to create the Mascaro Construction Academy. It enrolls high school students in classroom and hands-on training that prepares them for construction management careers.

“The partnership of Mascaro Construction and CCBC will allow us to reach a new generation of students and motivate them to pursue career options in the construction industry,” John Mascaro Jr., president and CEO of Mascaro Construction, said in a news release about the donation.

Students learn technical skills as well as the soft skills necessary to run a construction project, such as professionalism and communication.

“I want to get them excited about a construction career,” said Justin Brooks, director of the academy and the college’s new construction management program.

Industry leaders also are offering their own training, specific to their products.

Carlisle Construction Materials built a 68,000-square-foot training and education center three years ago to teach contractors from all over the world how to install and maintain its roofing products. There are spaces for hands-on and classroom instruction.

The company had offered similar training for decades, in a smaller building in the back of its plant. The new standalone facility allows it to do much more.  In the new facility, as many as eight sessions can be held a day.

“We can do multiple trainings simultaneously,” said Janial Mack, Carlisle Construction Materials’ national manager of consulting services.

About 1,500 people have attended sessions there. Like elsewhere, those sessions have had to occur remotely during the pandemic. But the facility was equipped for that, as it includes state-of-the-art audio and video equipment and an interactive video wall.

At the University of Pittsburgh, John Sebastian, director of the McKamish Construction Management Program, has put together an advisory committee of industry leaders, including executives from Mascaro, PJ Dick, and McKamish, to make sure the curriculum stays current.

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“We’re talking about how do you manage a project? What are good project management techniques? How do you motivate people? How do you work as a team? How do you create a schedule? How do you create an estimate? How do you handle the dynamics contractually amongst all the players, whether it’s the owner, or the subcontractors, the suppliers?” Sebastian said on a recent edition of the Building PA Podcast hosted by Chris Martin, president of Atlas Marketing, and Jon O’Brien, executive director for Keystone Contractors Association.

Sebastian worked in the industry for 40 years and hired and trained many of those working in the industry, so he has a deep network of resources to pull from.

A staple of workforce development continues to be the apprenticeship programs of local unions, such as Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 12 in Pittsburgh.

It recently opened a new training center with state-of-the art technology such as a CAD drafting room.

We sell careers. We don’t sell jobs.

mike Sweitzer, EARCC

There is plenty of interest, apprenticeship coordinator Joshua Moore said. The program intends to bring in 35 new apprentices this year. Between 100 and 150 applications usually are received for those spots. Applications were due March 31.

“I don’t think these programs need sold,” he said. “I think they sell themselves, when you sit down and look at them.”

Apprentices enter the five-year program at $21.61 an hour, plus benefits. They are in the classroom for 200 hours a year – during which they qualify for unemployment compensation – and on the job the rest of the time.

“When you get out of your apprenticeship, you’re making $37.96 an hour and you don’t have to pay back student loans,” Moore said.

The wages will rise on July 1 when the new contract year begins.

Apprenticeship programs are competing with other employment and workforce development opportunities for young people, though, and sometimes, that can be a challenge.

Moore would like to see more students encouraged to enter the trades.

“Kids aren’t exposed to the trades anymore,” he said. “Let them realize that it’s OK to want to work with your hands.”

The proliferation of warehouses in central Pennsylvania has been a challenge for the apprenticeship program run by the Eastern Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters, said Mike Sweitzer, training coordinator for the council’s Lebanon Training Center.

Some warehouses pay more than the council’s starting wage for apprentices.

Apprentices leave the four-year program earning $30+ an hour, though. The challenge is to get candidates to recognize the long-term payoff.

“We sell careers. We don’t sell jobs,” Sweitzer said.

Moore said the sheet metal workers are looking for self-motivators.

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“These are adult jobs that require you to be here every day because they’re multi-million-dollar projects. They’re very important and the contractors within this local depend on you to be at work. That’s it. The skills will come with the training and the experience,” he said on a recent edition of the Building PA Podcast.

Sweitzer believes schools are starting to recognize the need to expose students to the trades. He’s been asked to participate in events such as job fairs and career days from schools and organizations that hadn’t asked previously.

Workforce development has become more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without job fairs to attend, Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 12 has been marketing its apprenticeship program with emails and fliers and relying on school career counselors to make sure students know about the opportunity. It also produced a four-minute video for its YouTube channel in support of this workforce development effort.

Some in-person classes have resumed at the McKamish Construction Management Program at Pitt, but most instruction still is occurring remotely. There have been advantages to the new learning environment, though, as alumni and industry professionals from around the world have been able to participate in the virtual format.

Most instruction at the Mascaro Construction Academy also is occurring virtually, with in-person labs a few nights a week for hands-on training. Students were given tools and materials so they can practice skills at home.

With a recent grant from the Laurel Foundation, the program has added tools and testing equipment in its lab for construction methodology classes and added classroom technology for management classes.

The academy has worked to increase partnerships with local trade unions and the career and technology center.

“Since we are still a new program, we are diligently working every semester on improving our program and making sure we are helping individuals in our communities to build rewarding pathways into construction,” Brooks said.

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