NC Contractors Invest in Job Training for Economic Recovery

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by Bea Quirk

Members of North Carolina’s construction industry must surely be one of the most resilient and optimistic groups of people in the state.

In the midst of the worst economic downturn anyone can remember when one in five of the state’s construction jobs disappeared — workers and company owners have not been sitting back, wringing their hands and waiting for more bad things to happen. Nor are they doing nothing waiting for better days.

Instead, they are pro-actively preparing for the turnaround and taking the first steps in creating the new world that will await them when the construction industry begins building again.

These efforts are grounded in realism. According to John Connaughton, an economist at UNC Charlotte, statewide construction employment should grow by 3.4% this year.

However, notes NC State University economist Mike Walden, The jobs will eventually come back, but they will not be the same jobs. Things will be fundamentally different. Don’t assume things will pick up where they left off.

Steve Corriher, director of the Construction Technologies Division at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) in Charlotte, agrees. I’ve seen downturns before. This is not a downturn. It’s a revamping of how the industry operates. We’re not going to go back to building like we did before. People are going to have to make big adjustments.

That’s why job training and skill enhancement programs are more popular then ever. They are being pursued by people already in the field looking to upgrade their skills or validate their knowledge with degrees and certifications, as well as by newcomers who see construction as a viable new career path. Many are hoping to take advantage of the developing trends in green building, improved energy utilization and alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and nuclear.

Strong companies get stronger by investing in their employees, says Tim Eldridge, vice president, workforce development, for the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of the Carolinas. They keep their employees trained and engaged at times like this. How can you bid a project if you don’t have a trained workforce?

In January, ABC opened the 10,000-square-foot Gaylor Training Center in Charlotte. With five classrooms, laboratories, laydown work space and a conference room, the facility now hosts an electrical apprenticeship program attended by 75 students two nights a week. There are also daytime sessions covering safety issues and management skills, and there are plans to add mechanical, HVAC and plumbing training programs.

Efforts to introduce young people to career opportunities in the building industry haven’t stopped either. In fact, Women at Work, a program introduced in Durham by Lisa Pineiro last year, has grown from 16 to 44 female students. She is also involved in the school system’s 12-year-old program, Careers in Construction.

There are very few industries growing these days this slowdown doesn’t mean construction is dead forever. It’s cyclical, says Pineiro, president of Technical Services, Inc., headquartered in Durham. If we don’t enlighten and expose children now regardless of the economy we can’t expect to be able to affect change moving forward. Kids need to be exposed so they can find a profession they love and that’s lucrative.

Enrollment is up by about 15% in CPCC’s construction division, the largest among the 58 schools in the state community college system. There are about 1,000 students enrolled in associate degree programs in HVAC, electrical and construction management and 200 participating in the electrical and plumbing apprenticeships.

Another 700 are taking classes in continuing education and certification programs in areas such as masonry, carpentry and home inspections. There is also a Do It Yourself Institute that offers certifications for people who want to become handymen.

So many people are out of work. It’s energizing some of them to go into construction as a career change everyone needs heat and air conditioning, Corriher observes.Construction will turn around and lead the economic rebound. And it’s a field where its’ relatively easy to start your own business. That appeals to people in an economic downturn. People believe in the American Dream and want to be their own boss.

Charlotte’s construction industry enthusiastically supports the college’s programs. CPCC is a rock star, says Pat Rodgers, president of Rodgers Builders, Inc.

But the college isn’t resting on its laurels and is aggressively changing its courses to pro-actively meet the needs of an industry in transition. Sustainable practices, energy management, green building techniques and LEED and Green Advantage certification are being integrated into all the curricula.

It’s the way all buildings will be built it won’t just be an alternative, Corriher says. Some form of energy will drive the rebound. People need to figure out where they’ll plug in to it.

It’ll require thinking outside the box. For example, Corriher says that if electric vehicles take off, trained workers will be needed to install the systems that people will need to recharge car batteries.

The federal government is encouraging this transition. Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont recently received a $1.5-million grant to train people with disabilities, ex-convicts and the chronically unemployed for entry-level green construction jobs in areas such as window preparation and heating and ventilation work.

ABC is forming a Green Council and is including Green Advantage certification in its apprenticeship programs.

But there’s another transformation coming to the construction industry Building Information Modeling (BIM). Rodgers Builders is one company taking advantage of the current slowdown to get ahead of the curve. People throughout the company are being trained in its use.

With BIM, you virtually build every project ahead of time on the computer, Rodgers says,. I’ve never been as excited about a new technology, and we have invested heavily in it. This will attract more people to the industry. It’s no longer your grandparents’ or parents’ industry. When business picks up, the industry will look very different.

Rodgers has a long-standing commitment to training with a full-time staffer devoted to it. The company now has 50 LEED-certified professionals on staff and recently held a two-day workshop to further integrate LEED practices into its product delivery.

BIM is taught as part of CPCC’s blueprint reading class. ABC has recently sponsored two events dedicated to it. It is gaining momentum and catching on more and more, Eldridge observes. But it requires a full buy-in from everyone. It’ll take time to get all the players on board.

It’s not just the standard use of BIM in the industry that will take time to happen.Getting the employment numbers back up is also going to be a slow process.

There’s going to be an elevated unemployment rate for the next four or five years, Walden predicts. The good news is that the worst is over. But the rebound won’t be robust, and it will take several years, not a couple.

In the meantime, North Carolina’s construction industry is honing its workers’ skills and preparing itself for a very different looking future.

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