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April 13, 2017

Industry dispels the ‘college for all' notion with new ways to make construction cool

  • Contractors are facing critical shortages of young people entering the construction market.
    AGC of Washington

    Photo courtesy of the Nutter Foundation [enlarge]
    A past Dozer Day in Vancouver attracted a big crowd.

    Owners of construction companies across the country agree their single biggest challenge is finding good people.

    The most acute workforce need is skilled labor. A recent Associated General Contractors of America survey revealed approximately 70 percent of Washington contractors are having a difficult time filling some hourly craft positions.

    Like the rest of the U.S., Washington state is facing critical shortages of young people entering the construction market. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average age of the craft workforce is 42. With no robust influx of younger workers, the challenge of finding enough people to build projects is going to become even more pervasive.

    Over the years, the industry has gone the traditional route of “workforce development,” attending career fairs and focusing on great paying construction jobs with good benefits. This tactic is clearly not enough, and the industry is now looking at new ways of changing the narrative, paradigm shifts in high schools, and building creative partnerships.

    It is not an easy task to showcase construction as a place to build careers that offer advancement, leadership, professional growth, and the opportunity to be part of exciting teams and projects, when kids are only exposed to the four-year degree path in high school.

    Diane Kocer, AGC's Education Foundation executive director notes, “Students are told that college is the recipe for success for everyone, and as a result don't see technical colleges or apprenticeships as viable career options.”

    The disappearance of vocational education — now referred to as career technical education — in high schools has played a tremendous role in exacerbating the worker shortage. “As the ‘college for all' notion has popularized over the last 50 years, career technical education has received less funding,” Kocer said.

    The Legislature has spent significant money to prepare and encourage students to attend college, leaving fewer resources for the 70 percent of students who do not go on to a post-secondary credential. This year, AGC has been successful in advancing a career awareness bill through the Legislature. The bill is modeled after a successful program in Colorado providing matching grants for career technical education awareness.

    AGC lobbyist Michele Willms was instrumental in getting the legislation passed in the House. There is still a small hurdle to get through in the Senate, but passage of the bill looks promising.

    Says Willms, “Getting the bill passed will be a huge victory for Washington industries experiencing major skills gaps — getting it funded will be the real celebration. We think this bill provides a unique opportunity for a successful public/private partnership to join together and provide real solutions.”

    Awareness classes

    AGC's future plan is to use the newly launched website, BuildWashington.com, to promote a new four-week evening construction awareness class paid for by the industry and delivered through technical colleges across the state. At the conclusion of the classes, participants will be connected with employers and apprenticeship programs. The program is specifically designed to recruit entry-level craft workers age 19-29 who are unemployed or underemployed.

    The program will be especially beneficial to targeting minorities and women. According to AGC Executive Vice President David D'Hondt, “Colorado's first cohort of participants in the awareness program included 25 percent women and 25 percent minorities.”

    Some construction companies are aggressively engaging in workforce development, creating roles to directly provide outreach to students and educators, as well as providing volunteer opportunities for their employees.

    Mark Scoccolo, owner of SCI Infrastructure, is leading the charge to “make construction cool.”

    Scoccolo is chairman of the National Utility Contractor Association workforce development committee. He was motivated to get involved in workforce development because he believes the success of any business is about people.

    Scoccolo is quick to point out that we have never fully recovered from the deep recession that drove people away from the industry. He started looking for a new way to show young people how cool construction is. After attending Dozer Day in Vancouver, he immediately knew this was the path he wanted to champion through NUCA.

    Dozer Day is a two-day event started by the Nutter Foundation that offers franchises to groups wishing to host their own event. The goal of Dozer Day is to showcase the industry in a positive way and expose kids to a wide variety of jobs.

    “The best part of Dozer Day is getting to show kids how much fun construction can be,” Scoccolo said. “Seeing their excitement when they climb on a huge dozer or excavator is the best.”

    Last year marked the inaugural Dozer Day event held at the Washington State Fair Events Center in Puyallup. Scoccolo had no idea how many people would show up or if the event would even be successful.

    “This was truly a grassroots effort,” he said. “I spent an enormous amount of time talking to anyone who would listen to drum-up interest. We had a great first year with over 9,000 people coming through.”

    Dozer Day is targeted to kids ages 3–13 and their families. “The objective is to get them to come back year after year, and serve as volunteers when they turn 14,” Scoccolo said.

    In addition to promoting construction awareness, the event is designed to give back to the nonprofit community.

    Scoccolo's goal is to grow this program every year and involve more people.

    Dozer Day 2017 will be held June 3-4 at the fairgrounds in Puyallup. Those interested in sponsoring or volunteering can contact Scoccolo at mark@sciinfrastructure.com.

    It is a new day in construction workforce development, and it must be approached differently from many diverse industry groups and partnerships. From funding technical education to the way we talk and showcase the industry, we can all have an impact on the success of increasing a vibrant skilled workforce of tomorrow.

    Liz Evans is the Northern District manager of Associated General Contractors of Washington.

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