Recruiting the Workforce of Tomorrow

construction worker on jobsite
Jesse Walz

Workforce development has long been recognized as a need by NUCA and its members and chapters. For starters, the construction industry has suffered a bit of an identity crisis. Construction jobs are not typically viewed desirable – particularly underground construction jobs – despite the fact that these jobs are in demand and high-paying.

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With the need for workers already high, the global pandemic further complicates the situation. And, with Congress promoting infrastructure construction, an increase in potential work would create an additional need for new workers to enter to the industry. Pending legislation could provide $1 trillion-plus for infrastructure projects in the coming years.

According to a March 2021 report by the Associated Builders and Contractors, construction companies will need to add anywhere from 430,000 to 1 million new workers in 2021, depending on the growth model. The report also stated that every $1 billion in extra construction spending generates an average of 5,700 construction jobs.

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To get a handle on what NUCA is doing to address the situation, we spoke with Jesse Walz, project manager for Omaha-based L.G. Roloff Construction Co. Inc. Walz has been active in the NUCA of Nebraska chapter and recently took over as the chairman for the NUCA National Workforce Development Committee.

How long has workforce development been an issue in the utility construction industry?

It has always been an issue. I started in the industry more than 15 years ago and we have always struggled to get people, but it has gotten worse as time has gone on. It is hard, physical work that is not attractive to most people. It is difficult to convince someone that spending all day working in a ditch getting covered with dirt is a good gig.

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How is the shortage of workers currently affecting the industry?

At L.G. Roloff, we are short a few people but we are probably at an advantage because we have a large pool of labor to draw from in the Omaha area compared to contractors in more rural areas. If we could find more people now, we could be adding crews and growing instead of maintaining the status quo and trying to do the best we can with what we have. Another consequence is that perhaps we are working our core people harder, and you run the risk of burning them out.

In other parts of the state, things are different. There was a case in western Nebraska where a contractor had to shut down a crew because he couldn’t find help. So, even though we are looking at a potential increase in funding coupled with a huge demand, he is actually having to downsize. We also recently had a subcontractor withdraw because he lost three-fourths of his workforce in three weeks. He had a job posting for two months and got one application.

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So even if an increase in funding is available, the question is: how are we going to build the work? We just don’t have the people right now.

Before joining the national workforce development committee, you were involved on the state level, What types of initiatives did the Nebraska chapter take?

Our main object was to re-brand the construction industry to address the stigma that contractors were ditchdiggers or dirty construction workers. We wanted to change the perception of teachers, counselors, parents and the students – basically everyone.

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One big step we took was getting involved with the Nebraska Construction Industry Council, which developed a webpage with information for the different types of people we were trying to target. We knew students were a focal point, and we provided things like wage information, videos of actual jobsites, discussions on the advantages of going straight into the workforce and having on-the-job training vs. having tuition and possible loans that you have to pay back. The council opened avenues to get in front of educators in the classroom by expanding our reach of contacts. If you don’t know the right person to contact, sometimes cutting through the bureaucracy can be very challenging.

What is the NUCA National workforce committee working on?

In our strategic plan we have broken down our activities intro into four main areas.

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The first area is to develop a relationship with Skills USA at the national level. We felt that the type of young people who would be members of Skills USA would be the same type of people that our industry would be looking for, so trying to focus in on them would be a good place to start. With COVID over the past year-plus, a lot of the events have been cancelled or virtual, so it has been difficult to make progress on that front.

Next, we want to find a way where we can easily share workforce development ideas and strategies across the chapters and with the national office. Currently, each chapter kind of does its own thing, and maybe the information gets passed along, maybe not. So, we thought rather than trying to reinvent the wheel everywhere, we could compile information in one central location that we can all pull from. We have developed a task force that is identifying what information needs to be shared, then we’ll begin to gather the content itself.

The third item is to provide a scholarship that would reflect and support industry workforce needs. We were able to roll out the Workforce Development Chapter Grant Award earlier this year. It will be given annually to one NUCA chapter that has actively promoted workforce development training and education within our industry. The grant can be used to fund more outreach programs or award a student scholarship. Applications are being accepted until Oct. 31. The award will be presented at the 2022 NUCA Convention & Exhibit in San Antonio.

The last item on our strategic plan is create messaging promoting the variety of career paths in the underground utility construction industry. That has been the last area to be addressed, and we hope to make headway soon.

What results are you seeing from workforce development initiatives?

Success of workforce development is a little difficult to track. Also, some of the initiatives are a little too new to have results yet, but we are hopeful that we will start to see some of the fruit of labor soon.

There are also two issues to deal with. Most of our initiatives we address in the committee deal with the long-term need, the future workforce or next generation of workers. But there is also an immediate need. We need people tomorrow.

Workforce Development Chapter Grant

The NUCA Workforce Development Committee Chapter Grant award is given annually to one NUCA Chapter that has actively promoted workforce development, training, and education within the utility construction industry. The $5,000 award can fund the chapter scholarship program and workforce development activities. As part of the criteria, the awards committee will be looking at which chapter actively engaged in promoting industry career opportunities. All chapter submissions will be on display during the NUCA 2022 Annual Convention, and the winning chapter will be recognized during the gala event Saturday, March 5, 2022 in San Antonio, Texas.

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