Building up interest in skilled trades
Business Alliance to work with students going into construction

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

Oct. 13, 2015

The exterior of one of the two homes being built for Operation Finally Home seen Friday afternoon in Jackson. Operation Finally Home is a nonprofit organization based in Texas that builds homes for service men and women returning home with special needs. U.S. Army Sgt. Drew Wroblewski of Menomonee Falls was given one of the homes in August.
John Ehlke/Conley News Service

JACKSON - Leaders in the construction industry hope they can build students’ enthusiasm for learning a trade just as they are able to construct a home - with planning, vision and guidance. For the past few years more focus has been placed on exposing middle-school and high-school students to manufacturing jobs, but building and construction industry leaders are now making a concerted effort to recruit future workers to their trades.

On Oct. 22 and Oct. 29 students will be taken by the Waukesha County Business Alliance to the sites of two homes under construction for veterans in Jackson as part of Operation Finally Home.

Mary Baer, vice president of community engagement for the Waukesha County Business Alliance, said the organization’s Schools-2Skills program has been extended to included construction.

The program is expanding in response to the Alliance’s members saying they are having a hard time finding people to fill open positions.

Mike Mogensen of Precise Poured Walls walks a tape measure and level to another corner as construction continues on one of the two homes being built for Operation Finally Home in Jackson.
John Ehlke/Conley News Service

Labor problem

Kristine Hillmer, executive director of the Metropolitan Builders Association, said there is a “huge labor problem,” explaining there are multiple levels to the issue.

Like leaders in the manufacturing industry, Hillmer said the focus on sending students to college to get a four-year degree hasn’t always served those kids or the national workforce well. While a traditional university degree is the right choice for many, she said it’s not for everyone, so as a society we need to stop defining success as obtaining a degree.

“They don’t necessarily learn how to do something, they learn about something,” Hillmer said about the traditional approach to post-high school education.

“It’s my personal opinion we have done an entire generation of kids a disservice. We have said your value is based on getting a four-year degree,” she said.

The building industry was hit especially hard by the Great Recession and many of those who were already in the skilled trades ended up learning a new skill.

“A lot of the skilled trade (workers) went and learned how to do something else,” Hillmer said. “They are no longer in the trades or in our region; they went and moved somewhere else in the country.”

Those who are left in the skilled trades in the metro Milwaukee area are real survivors, she said. But there aren’t enough of those workers to complete the work needed for a recovering building and construction market. In addition, it takes time to learn a trade, such as to become a plumber or electrician. For some skilled trades, schooling is needed while others require a multiple- year apprenticeship.

“Unfortunately, sometimes they are hiring staff from other builders,” Hillmer said of companies. “There is a lot of turn (over) that is sometimes happening. They are having to delay their construction projects.”

For instance, Hillmer said she recently met with an MBA member who only had three feet of crown molding left to install at a project, but told it would take about 12 weeks for the contractor to find time for the installation. In turn, business owners are careful about mentioning who they use for projects because they don’t want to lose them to a competitor, especially if the worker is experienced.

Bob Mogensen of Precise Poured Walls looks over his schematic diagram as construction continues on the two homes being built for Operation Finally Home Friday afternoon in Jackson.  
John Ehlke/Conley News Service

Addressing the shortage

Hillmer said it will take years to bridge the gap in the labor market. Parents, education leaders and members of the federal government all must be made aware of the worker shortage and recognize the value of going into the building trades. She also wants to reach students as young as middle-school age about the jobs that offer family sustaining wages.

In some ways, Hillmer said manufacturing has overshadowed the building trades about drawing attention to its skills gap.

“Manufacturing is more visible because manufacturing started to come back in the economy before construction did,” Hillmer said. “Now all of a sudden it’s hitting.”

Baer said the labor shortage for the building industries took the Business Alliance by surprise a bit, but now it is hearing about the issue from many of its members.

Hillmer said the MBA is working with the Business Alliance on the Schools-2Skills program, including with the Operation Finally Home project. For the project, land was donated by Neumann Companies in Pewaukee. Belman Homes from Waukesha is constructing a stick-built home and Tim O’Brien Homes from the City of Pewaukee is erecting a panel home. Baer said having the two types of construction on display is great exposure for the students who will tour the Jackson site later this month.

“One of the most powerful things is to get kids in front of contractors to ask questions,” Hillmer said. “It’s exposure and awareness that these are really good jobs. This is not something going to be solved overnight.”

Earl Buford, chief executive officer of the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board, said there are a number of apprenticeship training centers in Waukesha County. His organization plans to use a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to expand seven new registered apprenticeships in information technology, health care, manufacturing and construction.

Apprenticeship programs are especially important for companies that work to advance employees by teaching them new trades. Buford said it sends the message that the employee is worth the investment and the company wants to help them grow.

“We need companies to take it on,” Buford said. “For some companies it’s ‘I don’t want to invest in someone and they leave me and work for someone else.’” Jeff Smith, United Steelworkers union president, said it’s hard to get the younger generation learning a trade because they want to achieve things quickly.

“Most people young people I talk to want instant gratification,” he said. But he said “Get a skill and you can use it for a lifetime.”

He is working with his company, Res Manufacturing Group in Milwaukee, to educate young people through an 18-month course.

“We need to build stuff and build our country — that’s serious,” Smith said.