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April 24, 2014

Worker shortage ‘coming at us like a freight train’

  • There are not enough companies who are committed to training though apprenticeship programs.


    Once again the construction industry is clamoring for skilled workers. There is an enormous gap in the number of skilled workers available to fill the existing jobs in construction.

    Unlike in years past when employers could not find enough people interested in careers in the construction industry, there are now workers who would like training but there are not enough companies who are committed to training though apprenticeship programs.

    “The average age of construction workers today is in the mid-40s and we see a worker shortage coming at us like a freight train,” says Adam Pinsky, CFO of SME Inc. of Seattle, a 42-year-old electrical contracting firm. “We’ve been training apprentices since 1994 and now many of those early students are instructors training a new workforce and are leaders in the company.

    “Trained employees can adapt to new situations more readily — they can make decisions based on their training, not just their experience,” says Pinsky. “We see apprenticeship as the path to future growth of the company.”

    Photo courtesy of CITC [enlarge]
    Lara is a fourth-year CITC electrical apprentice.

    According to a Washington State Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board report called 2014 Workforce Training Results, employers’ satisfaction with new employees who have completed apprenticeship programs is 93 percent.

    Yet there are still some employers who ask, “What does it cost to train an apprentice? And, what if I train them and they leave my company?”

    My reply is, “What does it cost not to train?”

    Other employers insist that their in-house training is sufficient. But, if all a company does is on-the-job training specific to that employer, all the employee learns is how things have been done rather than the latest technology of their trade. They also become insular, unable to see or understand the full scope of their trade.

    Through apprenticeships, employees are better able to think through problems while they are in a safe and controlled lab setting, where mistakes can be made and knowledge is gained.

    “Rafn Co. has put 32 people through the carpentry apprenticeship program,” says Shawn Rhode, president and COO. “They have become senior superintendents, superintendents, project engineers and project managers with the company, and just over 40 percent of them are still with us. That helps us ensure the continued growth and a healthy future for our company.”

    Double-digit returns for a 1% investment
    A study prepared in 2007 by the Construction Industry Institute found that investing just 1 percent of a project’s labor budget in training could have double-digit returns.

    The study showed that 1 percent yielded:
    • 11 percent improved productivity
    • 14 percent less turnover
    • 15 percent less absenteeism
    • 26 percent fewer injuries

    The impact of learning in a structured setting where apprentices can interact and share their work experiences with peers and instructors cannot be underestimated. Their problem-solving skills are amplified by their shared experiences, thereby allowing employers to cultivate a workforce that is flexible and able to meet the demands of this very diverse industry that is constantly embracing new technology.

    Apprenticeship programs have long been the most effective and efficient method to address the construction industry’s need for a well-trained workforce. You may remember that in February 2000, then-Gov. Gary Locke signed a state-wide apprenticeship initiative that came through an executive order requiring a percentage of labor hours for construction projects be performed by Washington state registered apprentices.

    Since that time, apprenticeship utilization requirements on public work have become widespread in Washington, encompassing construction projects by cities, counties, private and public development entities, departments of transportation and K-12 school districts.

    Regardless of regulatory requirements, employers who train apprentices are a major part of the solution in addressing the industry’s skilled labor shortage.

    Apprenticeship programs can be used very effectively as part of an employer’s hiring process and be an integral part of an established career. Research shows that not only does training narrow the skills gap, but it creates a much needed skilled and responsive workforce. Training employees translates into savings and increased productivity.

    Apprentices can
    make an impact
    Research conducted in 2008 by Populus to help launch the first National Apprenticeship Week revealed:

    • 77 percent of employers believe apprenticeship makes their company more competitive.
    • 76 percent say that apprenticeship provides higher overall productivity.
    • 80 percent feel that apprenticeship reduces staff turnover.
    • 83 percent rely on their apprenticeship programs to provide the skilled workers that they need for the future
    . • 67 percent believe their apprenticeship program helps them fill vacancies more quickly.
    • 88 percent believe that apprenticeship leads to a more motivated and satisfied workforce.
    • 59 percent report that training apprentices is more cost-effective than hiring skilled staff.
    • 41 percent say that their apprentices make a valuable contribution to the business during their training period.
    • 57 percent report a high proportion of their apprentices going on to management positions within the company.

    Keith Stewart, operations manager and a project manager for his family-owned Stewart Plumbing in Vancouver, completed his apprenticeship training in Oregon in 1998.

    “Formal training better prepared me as a foreman and has helped me grow in the profession,” says Stewart.

    “Training pays huge dividends to our company,” says Stewart. “The workers we train feel our commitment to them and they return it in loyalty. They have a longer and more reliable tenure than untrained employees. Plus their pride in their industry and the company make them good ambassadors for our company.”

    Frank Imhof, founder and CEO of Imco General Construction in Ferndale, has been training his employees through apprenticeship programs since 1994.

    “CITC is an excellent resource and a tool for training on means, methods, as well as safety,” Imhof says. “Our employees are training to become journeymen and at the same time are learning jobsite safety. Our safety performance has improved and we give CITC a large part of the credit for lowering our EMR by 60 percent.”

    The return on investment from the dollars that employers spend on training through apprenticeship is significant. The impact on an employee looking for a career in construction increases when a formal partnership between employer and the apprentice/employee exists. In addition, the impact on the workforce as a whole is essential to address the workforce shortage. Finally, employers who offer formal training become employers of choice to highly motivated individuals seeking careers in construction.

    Halene Sigmund is president of the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington. She is a member of the Construction Career Advisory Committee for the city of Seattle and this year was appointed to the Policy and Compliance Subcommittee of the Washington State Apprenticeship and Training Council.

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