Construction Labor Series Part Two: Workforce Growth Opportunities
Last week we framed up the construction labor challenge: we are currently short nearly 13,000 workers in Oregon to offset the current deficit of 140,000 housing units. Many of those workers we do have are aging and retiring, and we desperately need creative solutions to attract and retain new sources of human capital. Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope from the field.
One solution lies in the partnership between public, private, and non-profit organizations which can result in pooled resources and greater program scale. A terrific example of this is taking place in Central Oregon, under the leadership of East Cascades Works – the region’s local workforce development board. They convened a collaborative called the Central Oregon Construction Sector Partnership, which unites nearly 40 industry partners to solve workforce challenges with support from regional partners, including education providers, non-profits, and industry associations.
The program consists of training and education for pre-apprentice and apprentice programs with the goal of direct job placement. The pre-apprentice program for those 16 or older includes standardized and industry-sector informed curriculum completed over 3-8 weeks resulting in new workers “ready for hire” in entry-level construction jobs like helping to frame a house under the direction of a foreman. Apprentice programs take up to 4 years and are designed for workers to earn while they learn. Apprentice graduates are considered masters in their trade and are employable as construction job leads, foremen, master carpenters, and journeymen.
“The exciting part of this model is that it is aligned with all of the providers in Central Oregon,” said Heather Ficht, Executive Director of East Cascade Works. The program receives a mix of funding from the public and private sectors, including the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Prosperity 10,000, foundations, competitive grants, and the City of Bend. Ficht believes that the model can be scaled with committed resources and alignment so that all partners are moving in the same direction.
As a specific example, Ficht cited the Hard Hat in Hand project, which is a pre-apprentice initiative created by Meta (formerly Facebook) and Fortis Construction where students complete an 8-week course through Central Oregon Community College and receive various safety certifications and an NCCER (National Center for Construction Education and Research) blue card certification. This allows graduates to work with one of the contractors currently building the Meta campus in Prineville, OR.
Another solution is to enable access and advancement of under-represented populations in construction, including women, the BIPOC community, and disadvantaged youth. Regional and national organizations are training these populations for construction work and contractors are sourcing graduates of their programs. Walsh Construction’s Director of Innovation, John Gilson, said that the company is currently hiring from a few of these, including ANEW, which is dedicated to equity and inclusion in the construction industry for women and people of color, and provides career pathways, training, and apprenticeship programs in the Puget Sound region, and YouthBuild, which is a national organization that provides knowledge, training, and opportunities to “marginalized” and “at risk” youth. According to Gilson, both organizations offer a way to engage younger workers and ramp up the resource base required to strategically and gradually address our housing production needs in a cost-efficient manner.
Constructing Hope, a Portland-based non-profit provides a no-cost, 10-week, construction pre-apprenticeship program for low-income individuals, formerly incarcerated individuals, and people of color. The organization was originally founded to assist African American men with felony records in finding work. Construction was one of the few industries where a record was not an automatic barrier to employment. Since then, they have not only expanded demographics of who they serve, but the support services offered to their trainees, which includes expungements, driver's license reinstatement and help securing tools, with the goal of aiding graduates to re-enter the workforce and attain prevailing wages.
Every year, Constructing Hope provides training that includes construction skills, safety, applied math, financial management, professional communications, certifications, and life skills training to approximately 80 adults, with sights set on serving 100 people a year by 2025. The program has been successful because they allow people to train while also working, building their resumes. On training days at Constructing Hope’s headquarters in NE Portland, participants “punch in” around 6am and stay onsite learning until 4pm, three days a week. The main classroom, where they learn construction fundamentals proudly displays their work ethic pillars including persistence, assertiveness, and physical and mental toughness.
The organization is supported by a vast network of corporate, foundation, union, and government sponsors and was recently awarded a PCEF grant for the planning and implementation of solar, energy efficiency and green construction trade opportunities. “Constructing Hope means what it says and says what it means,” said Executive Director, Pat Daniels. “We teach people the skills as well as give them the tools and real-life experience they need so that they can go help build community,” she said. Daniels added that her greatest reward has been hearing positive feedback on program graduates that she has placed in permanent work opportunities. She recounted a comment from a trade partner who told her, “We don’t have a lot of people from you [Constructing Hope], but we have our best people from you.”
Alex Colas, Vice President, Pre-Construction at Colas Construction, a prominent Black-owned construction firm in Portland, views the diversification of the construction industry through the lens of social responsibility and equitable
opportunities. According to Colas, to achieve diversity in the workforce, a shift in procurement strategies is essential. "Current public sector strategies fail to resonate with the vibrant and varied voices that are essential in our ever-changing world," he asserts.
Colas sees untapped potential in engaging young people from both urban and rural communities, sparking interest in construction as a pathway to a stable and fulfilling income. By consciously aligning procurement goals with the employment of these demographic groups, Colas believes that the construction industry can be a catalyst for social equity. This not only empowers communities to participate in building projects that directly serve their neighbors but also fosters a sense of ownership and pride.
The renovation at the Oregon Convention Center stands as a testament to this belief. Completed originally in 1989, the Convention Center was an emblem of displacement for the predominantly African American community in NE Portland. The renovation offered an opportunity for redress.Metro, working closely with the National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMC) developed an equity lens framework that ensured a fair and competitive RFP process. This approach led to the largest public improvement contract awarded to a BIPOC Prime Contractor (BPC) in Oregon's history at that time.
While this example is drawn from a public commercial project, Colas sees its principles as extendable to housing and other sectors as well. By visibly involving Communities of Color in significant construction projects, Colas believes the industry can inspire individuals to see themselves as valuable contributors, forging careers that not only provide financial stability but also contribute meaningfully to the growth and vitality of their communities.
Addressing our housing underproduction crisis requires more construction workers. Through scalable, creative partnerships and training programs taking place across our state and region, we are creating more equitable access to construction jobs for a younger and more diverse pool of people. By continuing to shine a light on these programs, we can generate more awareness of the benefits of a career in construction and help close the employment gap.