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For Employ Milwaukee, recruiting skilled labor only half the mission

By: Alex Zank//November 23, 2016//

For Employ Milwaukee, recruiting skilled labor only half the mission

By: Alex Zank//November 23, 2016//

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Diversity key to attracting new crop of construction workers

Willie Wade (left) and Earl Buford of Employ Milwaukee stand at the organization’s office. Both Wade and Buford see benefits to a diverse workforce in the city.  (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)
Willie Wade (left) and Earl Buford of Employ Milwaukee stand at the organization’s office. Both Wade and Buford see benefits to a diverse workforce in the city. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

We’ve all heard it: Milwaukee is in the middle of a building boom. The construction industry needs workers. City residents, especially those living in poorer neighborhoods, need jobs.
Seems like a simple problem to solve.

What some may not always notice, though, is the amount of work it takes to coordinate and support workforce-development work to make this happen.

Officials at Employ Milwaukee, a workforce development board, see one of their biggest difficulties as being the need to retain skilled trades workers who have been brought into the industry.

Earl Buford, Employ Milwaukee president and chief executive officer, said about half of all construction apprentices drop out of their training before becoming journeymen. Among certain groups that Employ Milwaukee specifically works with, that number rises to 75 percent.

Buford said training is the key to helping people succeed in an apprenticeship program.

“If you’re really going to get people into construction jobs just because they live in the right area and they’re unemployed, there’s still more that needs to happen,” he said. “So I would love to have another piece added to that where … you get at least the basics of construction.”

As for recruiting new trades workers, the difficulty starts with getting younger generations interested. This is important, Employ Milwaukee notes, because 45 percent of the industry’s workers will reach retirement age within the next 20 years.

“We don’t have a pipeline. … In order to deal with that part of it, we try to do a lot with the younger people and the youth,” said Willie Wade, vice president of community relations at Employ Milwaukee.

This includes working with programs such as YouthBuild, which helps prepare young people for careers in construction. Those who take part in YouthBuild gain not only construction experience and knowledge but also hands-on training on construction sites.

And as if these difficulties weren’t great enough, Employ Milwaukee is also responsible for helping to meet the hiring goals for some of Milwaukee’s largest construction projects. This includes the city’s Residents Preference Program, which requires city contracts and private developments that receive $1 million or more from the city to ensure that at least 40 percent of the resulting construction-labor hours are performed by certified resident workers.

Take the $124 million Milwaukee streetcar project, for example. As work is set to start on the 2.5-mile downtown route and lakefront extension, Employ Milwaukee has been working with the general contractor Kiewit Infrastructure Group, a subsidiary of Omaha, Neb.-based Kiewit Corp.

The workforce development board is collaborating with WRTP/Big Step on recruiting and training workers for the project.

WRTP/Big Step, a group that works to introduce Milwaukee residents to careers in construction, is just one of Employ Milwaukee’s more than 50 partners in such endeavors.

Employ Milwaukee also works with what it calls industry-advisory groups. These groups, including one concentrating on construction, are made up of employers who help identify what their industries’ workforce needs are and which path forward might work best. They also participate in recruitment events.

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