The construction industry is facing severe labor shortages, but programs and people across the country are working at the local level to solve the problem. Help Wanted highlights the base’s efforts to recruit the next generation of construction professionals.
Do you know a group that helps recruit workers into the construction industry? Let us know.
It started with trying to win a health project in 2016.
Messer wanted the contract for the Cincinnati Children’s Critical Care Building and needed to differentiate itself from other national companies. So Stan Williams, Vice President of Economic Inclusion, helped create the Urban workforce development initiative Educate people from the neighborhoods near the hospital and give them permanent jobs in construction.
The contractor promised to fill 50 jobs with local workers by the end of the project and said it achieved that goal with the help of 16 different subcontractors and various social service groups.
Given this success in building the hospital, Messer decided to continue a form of the UWDI program. The company pledged to create 45 jobs for locals in various city projects by 2024, and Williams said 20 workers have already found their place.
process and partnerships
The new workers come from mostly black neighborhoods — a demographic that is underrepresented in the construction industry. About 6% of construction workers are black, according to the Bureau of Labor Statisticsalthough they make up over 12% of the general labor force.
To find potential trainees in these neighborhoods, Messer has partnered with the nonprofit social service Easterseals, which owns Building Value, a Cincinnati-based construction scrap business. Williams said the partnership makes sense because they could use the decommissioning work to provide education for entry into the construction industry.
From there, they found potential workers in urban core Cincinnati and placed them in a 12-week program that made $9.15 an hour. Each week, as workers demonstrated good attitude, arrived on time, wore the correct PPE, and developed their soft skills, they earned a green dot. After drug and background tests, Messer placed the worker with a subcontractor.
To get the subcontractors on board, it was necessary to use billions in arrears as an incentive.
“We said, ‘We’re going to do all the work for you, so all you have to do is hire the person. And we want you to try them for three months. And if you like them, we want you to hire them,'” Williams said. Most jumped at the chance.
Things have evolved since this hospital project opened in 2021. UWDI participants now earn $10.15 per hour at Building Value and receive a $1,000 bonus after completing the 12 weeks, plus Messer revisits the subs in eight weeks instead of three months.
Reginald Brock, an electrician at Archible Electric, says he got into the field through Building Value, which instilled in him the value of showing up early, working hard and delivering on time. But even then, like many other potential construction workers, he encountered obstacles. In Brock’s case, he didn’t have a car.
“Construction starts when the sun comes up, so the buses often don’t run that early,” Williams said. Although city workers can rely on public transport, sometimes they have to use multiple forms to get from A to B.
With a lack of transportation presenting a nearly insurmountable obstacle for many potential workers, Williams and Messer partnered with another group: Wheels Cincinnati. The faith-based nonprofit organization is providing a $1,500 car to those in need after they tell the organization in detail how the vehicle will change their lives for the better.
According to Williams, Messer is helping to associate the workers with Wheels by ensuring they are licensed and eliminating any existing violations. From there, Messer pays for the car with the worker’s $1,000 bonus, which they waive. Then the worker pays back the additional $500 interest-free over the course of his first few weeks in the sub.
Keysean Hartley, who is now employed at Valley Interior Systems, said he already had the self-discipline to work hard, but the program helped him get a car and develop the soft skills needed for his job.
“They helped me get a car, they basically just got my whole life together,” Hartley said. “You are a big part of my success today.”
Williams said Messer has partnered with other groups to draw attention to child care, nutrition and budget programs, often important tools some of the targeted recruits don’t have.
45 new employees by 2024 are hardly a drop in the bucket. The construction industry faces high demand for site workers, and it’s no secret that large sections of the workforce are retiring while others move to other industries.
Still, Williams says, breaking down barriers is hard work, even for the people whom Messer can reach most easily.
“I’m not sure I know how to scale this thing to attract a thousand people every year because the issues and concerns that people have have to be addressed individually,” he said. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, everyone has a driving problem, so we’ll solve the driving problem and they can go to work’ or ‘Everybody has a childcare problem, we’ll fix the childcare problem solve .'”
Still, Brock said places like Building Value can help their communities, which can provide a path to success, especially for younger people. Brock said if he had known about his options earlier, he would have tried to join a union as an electrician right out of high school.
Hartley said transportation, education and childcare might stand in workers’ way, but he felt they ultimately held the keys to their own success. Programs like UWDI help them open the door to a long-term career.
“I plan to continue on my path because I believe in myself and the people who have helped me,” Hartley said.