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Labor-starved building industry seeks young people to fill jobs

Gilbert High School seniors Mason Reading and Lucas Beals attended this year’s Arizona Construction Career Days because they wanted to know more about the industry.

Clarissa Tonkin, a student at the East Valley Institute of Technology, was there because she hopes to take her construction training into a decorative arts career.

The three were among a record 4,428 Arizona students participating in the 21st-annual event, organized by the Phoenix-based Association for Construction Career Development and hosted by the Arizona National Guard in Papago Park in Phoenix.

Accompanied by 410 teachers, the students traveled from 80 schools in 11 counties for AZCCD, which promotes career opportunities in – and dismisses stereotypes – about the high-paying construction industry.

With the country investing heavily in infrastructure during the next few years, expect more emphasis on vocational training, said Stephen Cole, workforce development trainer for California-based Rosendin Electric, which has a regional Tempe office.

“I think the industry needs to incentivize young people to go into vocations the same way as recruiters and high school guidance counselors do for how many students go on to college,” he said.

Cole noted that the base pay for a journeyman union wireman is $32.55 in the Valley, not including the insurance and pension that comes with the job.

At the same time, electricians in the mining industry are earning as much as $48,194 annually, according to the Arizona Mining Association, while concrete ready-mix truck drivers bring in up to $72,000 per year, according to the Arizona Rock Products Association.

The students had an opportunity to interact with 76 exhibitors and potential employers in Arizona.

For years, negative attitudes about skilled labor work have predominated as high schools and parents pushed young people into college as the only sure path to success.

At the event, however, students and professionals talked about career options without a high-cost – and often high-debt –college degree.

“AZCCD is the largest workforce development event in the state, generating a new pipeline of skilled workers. Our focus is attracting high school students to the industry while educating their teachers and counselors to the vast opportunities and careers available to make a very good living in construction,” said Rose Ann Canizales, president of the nonprofit event.

“We are ‘Building Tomorrows Workforce Today’ one student at a time.”

 On site were general contractors, such as McCarthy Building Companies of Phoenix and Chandler; specialty contractors, labor unions, regulatory and compliance firms such as the International Code Council and the Arizona Building Officials Association.

Also attending were representatives of the National Electrical Contractors Association, Associated General Contractors, Arizona chapter, and the National Association of Women in Construction.

“This event is a massive collaboration of prominent industry leaders, educators, legislators and our honored military partners who engage in positive dialogue supporting the creation of educational curriculum and workforce development for Arizona students,” said Steve Trussell, executive director of the Arizona Rock Products Association and the Arizona Mining Association, lead sponsors of the event.

“It has grown into a premier event in the state. Including this year’s group, more than 35,000 students have attended in its 21-year history.”

Stephen Cole, workforce development trainer for Rosendin, explained,” Young people often aren’t aware of the opportunities, and this event is a phenomenal opportunity to meet and talk with people in the industry who have made successful lives in the trades.”

One example of this is the company’s CEO, Mike Greenawalt, a graduate of Sunnyslope High School in Phoenix who began his career as an electrician’s apprentice.

The employee-owned company is one of the country’s largest electrical contractors, employing 7,500-plus people, with annual revenues averaging $2 billion.

Current Valley projects include the $800-million Meta Data Center project in Mesa and the $20-billion Intel Chandler semiconductor manufacturing plant in Chandler.

At the career gathering, Rosendin employees demonstrated technologies such as computer modeling and augmented reality as well as guided students on basic electrical wiring, power and hand tools and helped them bend conduit pipes, which appeared in various shapes such as hearts and canes.

They also noted that Rosendin has partnered with Grand Canyon University in Glendale on a Pre-Apprenticeship for Electricians program

The one-semester course combines college-level classes with hands-on learning fully paid for 80 students by the company and a government grant.

For employees, Rosendin will contribute toward the $10,000 for the four-year apprenticeship program offered by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

McCarthy has been participating all 21 years.

“We see the value of reaching students to educate about careers in construction,” said Amber Shepard, self-perform project manager for the company from its Chandler Innovation and Craft Workforce Center.

“At this event, they can see, feel and breathe construction,” she added, as associates behind her are cacophonously demonstrating nail driving. 

In addition to her project w ork, Shepard visits local schools to promote careers in the trades.

“We do a good job as a company, but I there’s always more opportunity to bring more folks in: project managers, superintendents, carpenters. Let’s bring in everyone,” said Shepard, whose father recently retired from McCarthy after 35 years in the industry, starting as a carpenter and advancing to superintendent. 

“It’s a cool thing, construction,” she noted. “It’s always evolving!” 

At Rosendin, Charity Mell leads the Outreach Team, visiting schools, where she talks about the industry and leads career fairs and talks about opportunities, including for women who are significantly underrepresented in construction.

“A big focus for us is fighting the myth that you have to be the guy on the side of the road with the hard hat,” she said, noting that the company sponsors the AGC’s Culture of Care and is dedicated to developing opportunities for women and minorities.

After moving to Florida, EVIT’s Tonkin, for example, plans to become a metal artist, using her pipe-bending and welding skills acquired at the school. Her dream business will produce flowers, dragons and other designs to decorate companies and homes, and she plans to blog about welding.

Gilbert High’s Reading and Beals are optimistic about their opportunities, the first in welding and the latter in engineering after continuing his education at ASU. “These jobs aren’t going to go away,” Reading said. “They are going to be around for a while.”

Nationwide workforce shortages have become the most prominent industry concern. In October, construction added just 1,000 employees despite a high demand for labor, according to an analysis by the AGC, based in Arlington, Va.

At the same time, national hourly earning bumped to $35.27, a 5.6-percent year-over-year increase, exceeding the overall private sector figure.

 “The construction sector would likely have added more jobs in October if only firms could find people to bring on board,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer in a prepared statement with the analysis. “Labor market conditions are so tight, however, that the sector barely increased in size even as demand remains strong for many types of construction projects.”

In Arizona, the industry needs about 1,000 electricians with the growth planned; other skilled tradesmen and –women will also be in greater demand, Cole explained.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be 80,000 new electrical jobs available every year until 2031.

“The pandemic sped up the ‘silver tsunami’ as Baby Boomers retired at a faster rate than they could be replaced,” he added.

He noted, too, that the construction industry must work on a glamour factor, to brand itself for Millennials/Gen Z’ers. “We are connected to creativity. We build things,” Cole said, adding:

“It’s very rewarding in a way that working at the computer all day might not be. Some of our people take pictures of their work and share them on social media with others; they’re proud of what they’ve done. They can see what they are working on and come back years later and say, ‘I built that.’”

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