Region’s building boom comes with hurdles in recruiting and retaining talent
Experts believe a bounce back in the Region’s construction trades is inevitable.
Despite suffering the economic effects of the pandemic, Northwest Indiana’s building industry is actively recruiting qualified talent to maintain the state’s competitive edge.
To understand the current state of the construction industry, Micah Pollak, associate professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest, said people must look at the cumulative effects of the area’s changing demographics. For several decades, the Region was losing population, what he refers to as “net domestic migration.” However, 2019 represented a turning point.
The 2020 census showed Indiana gained 23,943 new residents, with almost 10% of those individuals or 2,102 people moving into Northwest Indiana.
“It was (in 2019 that) we had the first positive net migration that we’ve had as far back as you can easily go in the census,” Pollak said. “That means that more people choose to move into Northwest Indiana than leave, (and) that’s huge, because even though those numbers are still very small, if Northwest Indiana becomes a place where people want to live and want to locate, we won’t be fighting to keep them here.”
The Region instead will become a destination for workers.
“They’ll want to come here,” Pollak said. “That builds a stronger workforce, a stronger network of human capital, and then businesses are more likely to locate here and expand and take advantage of that talent.”
Pollak acknowledged construction companies reduced head count or halted hiring in response to the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic. However, Pollak is confident it only is a matter of time before the construction trades return to the status quo.
“We probably won’t get back to our pre-pandemic levels of employment until 2023,” he said. “But once we have a majority of the population vaccinated and the virus has died down, it will no longer be as much of a concern. I think we will bounce back pretty quickly.”
Back to ‘new’ normal
Analysts say widespread vaccine availability could mean a ripple effect in the supply chain, in terms of business re-openings and increased consumer confidence and spending.
Kevin Comerford, director of professional development at the Portage-based Construction Advancement Foundation, is cautiously optimistic about a rebound. His organization is a regional construction industry trade association with more than 500 affiliated contractor companies in Lake, Porter, La Porte, Newton, Starke and Jasper counties in Indiana.
Their relationships with contractors mean people like Comerford have their finger on the pulse of the industry. According to Comerford, there is no disputing that 2020 really shook things up, and companies are still reeling from the disruptions.
“Our data indicates that the Northwest Indiana construction industry has experienced about a 35% decline in total man hours in 2020 when compared to 2019,” he said. “The majority of the decline is the result of the pandemic, and the industrial sector seems to be experiencing the brunt of the adverse impact.”
Despite this trend, Comerford said to his knowledge almost all the apprenticeship programs are taking applications. On the talent side, interest in the trades remains, although companies have had to adjust their approach to recruitment.
Comerford is charged with outreach to local high school students. Pre-pandemic, his organization’s strategy relied on interpersonal interaction.
“For example, we’d host a hands-on skilled trades day where they would bus students in, and we’d have all the apprenticeship training programs there,” he said. “And the students would get to talk to the apprenticeship coordinators and trainers (and) learn how to do something hands-on during their time on site.”
However, restrictions imposed by the pandemic meant more virtual interaction, including online interviews with apprenticeship coordinators, among other things.
Apprentices for tomorrow
Rick Gamblin, who worked in the trades as a journeyman ironworker, is an apprenticeship coordinator. Representing Ironworkers Local #395, he said the economic forecast is largely based on hyper-local data.
“Here in (Northwest Indiana), we have all the steel mills here,” he said. “Most of our work — I’d say 75% to 80% — is maintenance on the steel mills. So, when the steel mills are doing well, we’re doing well, (and) it’s really on a year-to-year basis.”
However, recruitment efforts do not stop during slower economic times, because it is essential to keep the pipeline full when the economy rebounds, Gamblin said. Apprenticeship programs are typically four years, so you need time to cultivate the next generation of labor.
Gamblin said that, in recent years, his group moved away from using traditional recruitment methods, including advertising in local newspapers. Younger people, he said, tend to respond more favorably to social media posts, which meant adapting that tactic especially during the pandemic.
Still, there sometimes is a disconnect between what students envision for a job in the trades versus the day-to-day reality. Gamblin wants to set the record straight.
“I would say the biggest (misconception) is people think that they’re (going) to come here, get accepted (into the apprenticeship program) and just start collecting big paychecks,” he said. “And that’s not how it works in construction.”
Apprenticeships can mean working long days and weekends in challenging conditions.
Chris Charters, outreach specialist with Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters, said he has encountered those same attitudes from prospective apprentices, along with other challenges.
“The two biggest issues that we’re having right now in the trades are getting people to show up on time, five days a week and stay drug free,” Charters said. “All of our members go in for random drug screenings, so you have to remain drug free to maintain employment.”
However, apprentices that make the cut can enjoy a bright future, especially as the baby-boom generation phases out of the workplace. Data from the trade publication “Industrial Safety and Hygiene News” frames the story.
“For every person (who) enters the trades, five retire,” per a June 2019 article. “Once all the boomers retire, we’ll be looking at almost 5 million open positions in the construction and extraction industry alone, (and) it’s not just a lack of people of working age to fill these roles, (because) to look at why these boomer-vacated jobs aren’t being filled, we need to look at the next generation of workers — the ones currently in high school and college.”
That is why it is critical to reach high school students who might not continue their education through either a two-year or four-year college.
Charters estimates that about 30% of Indiana high school students today are not college bound. A certain percentage of that cohort might graduate with a technical honors diploma and related skills. This represents an opportunity for his organization and similar groups that have made a career out of reaching the next generation of skilled labor.
“What we’re trying to do is help these students by directing them into our registered apprenticeship program,” he said. “It helps them find a career pathway, something they could get involved with at 18 or 19 years old and continue to pursue for the next 30 years of their life, (so) it’s making a career out of work rather than just holding down a job.”
Competing for talent
Joe Sanders, executive vice president of Ozinga’s Ready Mix Concrete division in Indiana, is among those who benefits from the recruitment efforts of Gamblin and Charters. Even so, he said it can be tough to attract talent in the Elkhart, Goshen, Mishawka and South Bend areas. That’s because they compete with the recreational vehicle industry for drivers.
Another challenge is construction work is largely seasonal. Sanders said they are up front about that fact.
Also, they try to emphasize that once they settle into a role, it can be a very good career. And like the unions, Sanders said, they have had to rethink how they reach their target audience.
For instance, he has been in contact with several area unions to develop training programs for people who may be inquiring about driver work. They also have tapped the Indiana Department of Workforce Development’s WorkOne program — specifically their veterans hiring program — to scout potential labor.
“We’ve given them our job descriptions, what the job entails, and hopefully, they have prospects that come through, especially veterans (who) may have driven and worked with dig equipment,” he said.
Looking more at the bigger picture, Sanders said the labor shortage is symptomatic of long-standing cultural values that have traditionally steered young people away from the trades. For the past 40 years or so, educators and administrators have stressed the importance of a four-year college education, and therefore, pushed technical training to the margins.
“Depending on the region, all trades are having issues with trying to fill jobs, from pipe fitters to welders to electricians,” he said. “It’s a shallow pool, (and) I think everybody’s kind of in the same boat.”