Big construction efforts like the Waterfront Development Project and new apartment complexes has Clark County’s construction sector booming, so much so that economic developers are worried about keeping the pipeline full of workers.
To address the issue, the Building Industry Association of Clark County, Southwest Washington Contractors Association, Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative and Workforce Southwest Washington have been working together for the past year and a half to create the 2017-2019 Construction Workforce Plan. The plan looks to coordinate efforts to increase diversity, connect youth to training and improve retention of existing workers and apprentices.
“With 60,000 jobs and a payroll of $3.3 billion, construction accounts for 6 percent of the Greater Portland region’s private-sector employment and 7 percent of payroll,” said Julia Maglione, a spokeswoman for Workforce Southwest Washington, in a prepared response. “Workforce Southwest Washington and our partners in the Columbia-Willamette Workforce Collaborative have identified construction as a high-growth, high-demand sector in the Greater Portland region. We created a workforce plan because we found that while the growth is there, a pool of employee candidates is not. This is particularly true as more and more people retire.”
The industry, known for its cyclical nature, lost a lot of skilled employees in the economic downturn of 2008. Many went on to different careers and aren’t coming back, which has caused a gap in the workforce. And yet in the next 10 years, more than 15,000 new construction jobs are expected in the Portland Metro region, with pay averaging around $25 an hour or more.
Further complicating the situation, the industry also faces a graying workforce that’s about ready to retire.
“One-fifth of the region’s construction workforce is at, or nearing, retirement age,” Maglione said. “This means that as the region grows, the industry will run into staffing issues – some of which they’re already seeing. A workforce plan provides a structure to help industry identify their current and pending needs and plan for their future.”
This is the first time the groups have come together to create a Construction Workforce Plan. And it’s sorely needed, as the industry’s boom is likely to continue, said Darcy Altizer, executive director of the Southwest Washington Contractors Association.
“It came about by the continued message and frustration through the construction industry and getting workers through the pipeline,” Altizer said. “Construction is booming right now. And for the next couple years, it looks strong.”
Beyond the waterfront and housing, the industry is also growing in infrastructure and transportation sectors, along with government work, she said.
“In Clark County, the construction industry has been at an average growth rate of 7.3 percent for the last five years,” Maglione said.
And this is the 103rd month of economic uptick in the United States, which is close to the U.S. record for continued economic growth of 129 months, Altizer said.
“That means we’re two years out from the record,” she said.
Priorities of the Construction Workforce Plan
The 2017-2019 Construction Workforce Plan, released in late 2017, lists three major priority areas: Connect youth to jobs and training opportunities in construction; advance equity and diversity in the construction industry; and improve retention of existing apprentices and workers.
One big part of the youth training area is the Youth Employment Summit scheduled for April 10.
The summit combines last year’s Youth Employment Summit with Construction Career Day and has a healthy private sponsorship. More than 300 youth from Southwest Washington are expected to attend. Companies interested in participating can also contact Cass Parker at Workforce Southwest Washington for details (firstname.lastname@example.org or (360) 567-1076).
Other efforts include reaching out to schools and trying to dispel some of the myths about construction, such as it being a low-tech career, Altizer said.
“Jeans and work boots may not seem as appealing as working on your phone, but the technology is there in construction as well,” Altizer said. “(We’re looking at) partnerships with our school districts, working with the legislature with a path being more exposed to trades and the industry.”
Educational outreach will also focus on the broad range of careers in construction, including creating construction programs in the school system, Maglione said.
“We see a variety of needs for positions and skills,” she said. “Our data and conversations with industry experts show that carpenters, construction laborers and electricians will be fast growing and in need of workers in the next 10 years.”
The second prong – increasing diversity – will look at opportunities for women and people of color in the industry, with a goal of doubling their numbers, Altizer said.
“We developed a marketing strategy to highlight the diversity and welcome all,” Altizer said.
The effort will also attempt to institutionalize diversity in the industry, and it includes resources for pre-apprenticeship, training and screening capacity for women and minorities.
And the final prong to improve retention of employees includes creating more tools to help workers thrive through the cyclical nature of the industry, Altizer said.
“Much of it is about standardizing tools for jobs for success, to create formal mentorship programs,” Altizer said. “(We want) to identify what their strengths are early, so we can put them on the right path.”
Analyzing how successful companies deal with the cyclical nature of the industry can also help in that area, Maglione said.
“Currently, the industry looks stable, but we always hope our construction companies are planning for an eventual slow down,” she said. “In the last economic downturn, many of the Clark County companies that stayed in business took public jobs. Both SWCA and the BIA work with their members to help prepare for them for economic shifts.”
Maglione also has some advice for employers.
“Given the projected worker shortages in many industries, all industries – not only construction – could benefit from reviewing and rethinking how they search for and interview potential job candidates,” she said. “For example, if companies are not getting enough people by advertising job openings in the places they’ve always used, it’s time to rethink where they’re advertising. If they’re not getting a large enough applicant pool, it could be the job description is written in a way that is not inclusive to young people, women or diverse candidates. Salary and benefits are also areas to explore.”
The plan is available online at https://workforcesw.org/wp-content/uploads/WSW-Construction-Workforce-Plan-2017-2019-1.pdf.