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Business involvement key to training next group of workers

Job shadows, service learning, internships and first jobs are essential to building construction workforce

MELISSA BOLES Workforce Southwest Washington

On any given day in Clark County, you’ll pass a construction project – or two or three.

Clark County is growing rapidly, and nothing exhibits this more than the work happening on the waterfront, or that the Washington State Capital Budget included nearly $80 million for projects in Clark County. And yet, at any moment, some of our biggest construction companies and unions will turn down work because they don’t have the people needed to staff the jobs.

This seems wrong, doesn’t it? How could construction companies not be able to staff their jobs? There are hundreds, thousands of people in Clark County who need jobs. Students who need to pay their way through college, people who work in low-wage jobs that barely make ends meet, and a host of other unemployed and underemployed folks who could use a living wage. They’re all here, but our construction companies are in desperate need of people. So, what’s happening?

As someone who was raised in the “college for all” generation, I can tell you that anyone I knew who wasn’t going to college was considered “unsuccessful.” College was what you did after high school, and anyone who didn’t was told they wouldn’t be able to build a career. It wasn’t until later, when most of us were in debt, that we discovered we could have found viable careers where training didn’t cost as much.

Now the tide is turning, and schools are having more conversations about other career opportunities. School districts have 16 career clusters they use to guide students into career pathways. One of those clusters is Architecture & Construction, and we are seeing more programs that give students the opportunity to learn about construction before they complete high school.

Hudson’s Bay High School, for example, has developed an Architecture, Construction and Environmental Services (ACES) magnet that teaches students skills in planning, designing, building and operating within architecture, construction, engineering and environmental functions and services. The ACES program is designed to prepare students to enter the workforce directly after graduation or go on to additional education.

The construction program at Cascadia Technical Academy (formerly the Clark County Skills Center) is a combination of theory and hands-on experience where students participate in several projects, including working off campus on a house. Students who complete this program receive certification from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) and often go on to work in construction. NCCER certification assures employers that the individual has met industry-recognized knowledge and training standards.

Youth programs funded through Workforce Southwest Washington will use Cascadia Tech’s facilities after regular summer school hours to help youth who have dropped out of school complete their GED, gain skills and obtain NCCER certification and job placement assistance.

In each program, students interact with and learn from professionals in the field. Each of these programs is an example of how business, workforce and education can come together to get young people into construction. Why does this matter? One-fifth of our region’s construction workforce is at, or nearing, retirement age. When the industry is already in need of employees, the retirement of many workers who have been in the industry all or most of their lives will be harmful to the future of the industry – and the future of Clark County.

One of the recommendations from a December 2017 performance audit on Leading Practices for the State’s Secondary Career and Technical Education Programs is to strengthen employer engagement to better align Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs and courses with high-wage, industry-needed skills.

February is CTE Month. Why not reach out to your local high school or middle school and see how you can get involved, or speak with a class about your company and industry? Or contact Workforce Southwest to participate in the April 10 Youth Employment Summit to talk with students and possibly hire some for summer or part-time jobs.

Last July, Avaly Scarpelli, executive director of the Clark County Building Industry Association, wrote in the Vancouver Business Journal about industry, education and workforce coming together to support the growth of the construction industry. Avaly’s words still ring true – we need your help to get young people into the industry, to have more conversations about why construction is a viable career and to showcase the great work being done that will help us grow in ways we can’t yet imagine.

There are many ways for you and your company to be involved in educating the next generation of construction worker – internships, apprenticeships and job shadowing are a few. If you’re already doing some of this work, please reach out – we want to hear about what you’re doing to continue to make construction a sector that thrives in our region.

Melissa Boles, Industry Initiatives manager at Workforce Southwest Washington, helps business leaders in construction and health care identify solutions for their workforce development challenges. Reach her at mboles@workforcesw.org or (360) 567-3185.

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