Constructing tomorrow’s workforce today

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In June, there were more than 62,000 job openings nationwide in construction, an industry that has seen workforce demand grow faster than nearly any other sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To help grow that workforce, several organizations in Colorado and El Paso County are working together to change the conversation  and perception about employment in the construction industry, where annual wages can start at more than $50,000.

To increase the number of skilled construction workers in Colorado Springs, the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs, the Southern Colorado Construction Career Day Foundation and builders such as Vanguard Homes and others are working to educate and inform students and young adults about careers in the industry.

The construction trades have been long neglected in high schools, said Jim Johnson, CEO of GE Johnson Construction Co.

“No one was truly invested in developing those craftspeople. There was a perception — and it’s still present — that construction-skilled crafts was not really a career, it was a job until you got a career at Facebook or whatever,” Johnson said.

“It’s a real job … [but] it wasn’t seen as high-tech, so a lot of various generations were not interested. We had an image problem.”

Last December, the GE Johnson Construction Co. Community Foundation awarded $250,000 to the Pikes Peak Community College Foundation and the Foundation for Colorado Community Colleges to provide scholarships for new construction certification and degree programs. Through the Jim Johnson Construction Challenge and matching grants, up to $580,000 is expected to go to PPCC and rural colleges in the state to support construction training.

About 100 students are enrolled for the fall semester of PPCC’s construction certification classes, starting Aug. 28, said Warren Epstein, executive director for marketing and communication at the community college. Epstein said several scholarships are still available.

The HBA of Colorado Springs is also working with builders, school districts and trade associations to support programs like Careers in Construction and Construction Careers Now, which were created to introduce high school students to the industry

In its first year, HBA’s nonprofit Careers in Construction program was piloted by Harrison School District 2, which issued 19 Home Builders Institute Construction Core Certificates during the 2015-16 school year and 85 certificates during the 2016-2017 school year. The program started with 21 students and has since expanded to 300 students across five schools. Colorado Springs School District 11 and Falcon’s District 49 are also participating.

Vanguard Homes and other builders took part in HBA’s workforce development program by donating money to the Building Futures Fund to provide long- term financial support. 

Mark Long, president of Vanguard Homes, said many workers left the industry after the last recession, but the demand for workers in El Paso County has picked up over the past several years.

“We’ve got more work to be done than workers,” Long said. “Workers have to work more hours and it’s more stress on them.”

Another program for potential construction workers is the Southern Colorado Construction Career Day Foundation’s 10th annual career event Sept. 14 at the Norris-Penrose Event Center. Created for high school juniors and seniors, the event will teach hands-on skills and offer technology demonstrations.

Linda Champlin-Frank, president of the Southern Colorado Construction Career Day Foundation and former president of several local National Association of Women in Construction chapters, said that more than 500 students participate in this half-day event, some traveling from New Mexico.

This year’s sponsors include the El Paso County Contractors Association, IBEW/Colorado Springs Electrical JATC and the National Association of Women in Construction.

Champlin-Frank said the organization conducts multiple building and construction trade and apprenticeship training programs in Colorado, and she said she has seen a need for more skilled workers over the past decade.

“Construction workers [are] aging out and, with all the technology and people pushing kids toward college and IT stuff, we’ve lost the trades part of it. There’s a definite need for these skilled workers,” she said.

“It’s very hard now for companies to find workers who are eligible to work or who are trained and are willing to go through training.”

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