The construction industry faces a stark shortage of workers, but programs and people across the country are working at the local level to solve the problem. This series will highlight the grassroots efforts helping to recruit the next generation of construction pros. Read previous entries here.
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Wilson Diaz always knew he wanted to work with his hands.
The 20-year-old Bronx native attended a vocational high school and went straight into getting his plumbing certification. In February, he studied in one of nonprofit Building Skills NY’s classes to get his HVAC certification.
Now, he’s doing carpentry work for C&S Subcontracting on houses in the Melrose neighborhood of the borough he grew up in, but he also sometimes moves around to other sites as needed.
Diaz says he’s proudest of being named foreman of this project in his own neighborhood and getting recognition for his can-do attitude. Diaz has taken a leadership position at work before he’s old enough to legally drink alcohol.
Think of New York City-based Building Skills as a middleman. A workforce intermediary nonprofit, the organization helps train workers for construction and connects skilled, eager people like Diaz with employers doing work around the Big Apple. When one project ends, workers often return to Building Skills looking to find placement on another, thereby building their own portfolio of experience.
Mitch Blonder, vice president of Level 5 Carpentry Corp. in New York City, said his company depends on Building Skills to make recruiting easier.
“They are taking these young folks and training them in all different ways, for example they are teaching them about OSHA safety, which is the most important thing on a jobsite,” Blonder told Construction Dive. “They are also teaching them the basic skills of carpentry, plumbing, HVAC and more.”
The goal is to help construction firms and prospective employees alike. Building Skills also said its program is helpful for contractors working on projects with mandates requiring hiring a certain percentage of local workers: They can find the nearby workers and get them on the project through the nonprofit’s network.
“I guess you could say we kind of ‘quarterback’ the connection between workers and employers. And employers in this industry especially are so busy, I think when they have to start to kind of work through multiple recruiting channels or multiple different organizations are working with, it can become extremely cumbersome,” said Davie Meade, executive director. “So we really try to streamline that the best we can, and we feel that we’ve got a network where we’re able to find individuals that are right for the industry.”
Founded about 10 years ago by affordable housing leaders and commercial developers in New York City — current board members include affiliates of the Real Estate Board of NY, Google and Mega Contracting — Building Skills has gone from about 40 placements a year to being on track to place 400 workers in jobs this year, and 1,800 over the last five years, according to Meade.
Diaz said the nonprofit is a great resource and safety net.
“If I get laid off, I can just call Building Skills and they’ll have me a job in probably a week,” he told Construction Dive.
The nonprofit aims to get workers used to what to expect from the trades. Orientation Zoom calls take place at 6:30 a.m., and that’s where Meade and others encourage participants to clear their schedules to be ready to work. It’s not uncommon for a worker to discover Friday that they’ll be working on their first jobsite on Monday morning.
Before they set foot on a jobsite, Building Skills ensures workers have the baseline training required by law to work in New York. But last year, the organization started a new education program. In partnering with LaGuardia Community College and Bronx Community College to use curriculum from National Center for Construction Education and Research, enrolled Building Skills participants can gain an additional 200-plus hours of training.
It has been a success, though there is a learning curve. Building Skills continues to try new things, such as incentivizing participants to follow through with the training.
“In our most recent cohort, we provided stipends to students, which was extremely meaningful,” Meade said. “A lot of our students are working in the field and then they’re taking the training in the evening, so to be able to also provide a little bit of extra financial support while they’re doing the training has really gone a long way.”
The 30 students in the class got $20 an hour for the classes they attended, Meade said.
Getting around hurdles
The construction industry has seen a large amount of its employees retire. During the last 10 years, Building Skills has had to refocus its efforts largely on people aged 18 to 24, said Siera Nezaj, director of communications and grant writing for the nonprofit.
Meade said the physically demanding work, and reporting to different jobsites regularly, can be draining for some participants. It’s important for Building Skills to prepare workers for the reality of a stressful work environment.
“I think there’s challenges around consistency, like showing up consistently on time, which in construction, on time is 30 minutes early,” Meade said. “Also understanding some of the demands of pacing, there’s a lot of pressure from the top sometimes to get things done.”