DJC Op-Ed: Stepping up to address workforce challenges: part II

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By: Mike Salsgiver
Executive Director, AGC Oregon-Columbia Chapter

This article was published by the DJC on May 15 in Buildings Bridges and Roads and can be viewed here (subscription required).

Last month, I introduced you to the two latest additions to our workforce and professional development team, Frosti Adams and Aaron Bouchane. This team underscores that AGC is making a substantial investment in strengthening the workforce pipeline. And in just a few weeks, our newly established team has been hard at work examining next steps to move the industry toward building the construction workforce of the future.

As business leaders, we know there are serious challenges in finding enough people to do the work that is in the construction pipeline. If the pool of skilled workers was at the capacity demanded by the industry, several thousand more would be employed throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington than there are today.

But what is happening to move the needle?

In continuing the conversation on workforce and the challenges within the industry and among its employers, it’s important to examine how the programs and resources in place can be utilized to their full potential. What resources are already in place that can be expanded upon? And how can the industry benefit from that?

There is a movement under way to address workforce challenges, and it’s gaining steam. Activity is happening throughout Oregon at multiple levels.

Workforce development boards statewide have adopted construction as a target sector. Specific plans have been developed, and money and resources are being directed toward programming.

An example is the Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative, which aims to coordinate funding, ideas and resources in the region to jump-start the relationship between industry and education.

Additionally, union training programs are operating at record volumes and are struggling to keep pace with industry demands. The Northwest College of Construction is accelerating its work to offer learning opportunities from the apprenticeship level to business leadership.

More and more community-level organizations are recognizing construction as a pathway out of poverty to a living-wage job.

On the education front, what I call “K-through-gray” (kindergarten through retirement), we’re seeing great things.

In partnership with AGC, Willamette Promise has developed Educator Externship programs. The goal is to connect educators throughout the state with contractors. Teachers and counselors can learn about the construction industry and then translate their experiences into everyday lesson plans and into guidance that lets students know that construction is a great industry to consider for a career.

Oregon Department of Education-funded and regionally-located STEM hubs are focusing on career-centered learning and ways to bridge the industry and education.

Career Technical Education Revitalization Grants continue to be plugged into our communities across the state as our Legislature meets its commitments to fully fund Measure 98’s High School Success Act.

Community organizations and community colleges are creating new pre-apprenticeship programs and targeted training to meet industry needs and provide additional career pathways to underserved populations.

The Astoria School District is working with industry leaders to set up internship opportunities for agriculture and construction. U.S. Labor Department dollars are going to post-secondary training programs.

From the K–12 level to vocational schools, to community colleges and universities, to the programmatic level at the state, the superstructure is being built to bolster the workforce pipeline.

Even given all of the efforts in place, there is still a lot of work to do. Now, more than ever, we need a coordinated effort to tie all of these activities together into a focused and synchronized set of initiatives.

In the past year, AGC has hosted regular meetings of what has become known as the Oregon Construction Workforce Coalition. These gatherings feature a diverse and vibrant group of interests from education, business and the community at large. There is tremendously positive energy coming from these meetings, and this kind of coordination must continue.

The power of the Workforce Coalition is that it can bring a tighter focus and less duplication across all our workforce programs and efforts. Ultimately, the primary goal needs to be to actually place students and others seeking work into gainful employment, whether the job is in construction or any other business sector.

Additionally, each one of Oregon’s 220 school districts must be made aware of what the High School Success plan offers, and plans must be built to fully connect students with the graduation success initiatives and vocational education programs that will be made available to them.

And each district needs to take a page out of the Portland Public Schools playbook. As new schools are being planned, or as existing schools are being remodeled and made ready to educate students in the 21st century, the building design plans must include vocational education space (what we used to call “shop classes”) for students.

The goal is to reconnect where disconnection has occurred over a span of many years.

There is a lot of activity, but the need for efficiency continues. In my next column, I’ll look at how we’re going to ensure real results as AGC builds the workforce of the future.

Mike Salsgiver is the executive director of Associated General Contractors’ Oregon-Columbia Chapter. Contact him at 503-685-8305 or mikes@agc-oregon.org.

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