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Building a better image: construction industry promotes training programs in an attempt to avoid labor shortage.

The construction industry is facing a major challenge -- building a better image.

Recent studies reveal that young people nationwide have little interest in construction careers.


They perceive construction workers as poorly paid manual laborers who "lack class and respectability."

No longer do American children dream of becoming carpenters, masons and electricians.

Unless the construction industry improves its image, a shortage of qualified workers will plague contractors. Although the recession has slowed the onset of those difficulties, some contractors are reporting shortages.

Wayne Bolin, director of education for the Arkansas chapter of Associated General Contractors of America Inc., says 38,000 people are employed by the construction industry in the state.

To meet increasing demands, Bolin says almost 3,000 qualified craftsmen must enter the work force each year. About 1,200 people are enrolled in apprenticeship programs across the state.

"We're not getting half as many as we need," he says. "We're a long way from the saturation point. Fifteen years ago, we could count on a certain percentage of young people coming out of high school |and entering the construction industry~. That's not so anymore."

Chris Ames, director of education for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Arkansas Inc., says one way to attract young people to construction is to promote and improve those apprenticeship programs.

"We are trying to entice students before they get out of high school," he says. "Construction is becoming highly technical. It requires more formal training. Buildings are taller and, therefore, more difficult to build. Environmental and electrical systems are more complicated. Machinery is more technically advanced."

ABC's Merit Shop Foundation College of Construction offers four-year apprenticeship programs. Electrical, heating and air, sheet metal and plumbing training is offered.

The program offers journeyman's certificates in more than 10 areas. A new carpentry program will begin this fall, Ames says.

"There are two major differences between our apprenticeship colleges and traditional colleges," Ames says. "First, the students earn while they learn. Eighty percent of their training is on-the-job training for an employer. Second, students come out of the program with a job. In fact, employers beg for them. We have a 100 percent placement record."

ABC training is conducted at Little Rock, Conway, Jonesboro, Morrilton, Fort Smith and Springdale. Regular tuition is $500 per year and usually is paid by the employer.

Recruiting Youth

ABC begins recruiting young people for careers in construction when they are in elementary school.

Partners in Education, a program operated in conjunction with central Arkansas elementary schools, sponsors field trips to job sites. The trips allow children to experience the building process.

ABC and Metropolitan High School of Little Rock conduct a linkage program for high school juniors and seniors. Students enrolled in the program spend half a day at a regular high school and half a day in an apprenticeship program at Metropolitan. Two years in the linkage program is equivalent to two years at ABC's college.

ABC will begin a new pre-apprenticeship program this spring. Forty promising high school seniors will be selected for night training. Upon graduation, the students will spend the summer working full time for contractors. In the fall, they will be enrolled in the apprenticeship program.

There is also management training available, according to Ames. One-week sessions on the campus of Clemson University at Clemson, S.C., provide training in computer skills and advanced technology. Ames says Arkansas companies are beginning to show interest in the national program.

Government Support

Recognizing the need for a higher level of training, the Legislature appropriated $1.3 million last year for improved apprenticeship programs. The money was divided among labor unions, professional organizations and private companies that provide apprenticeship training.

Kenneth Lamkin, director of the state Department of Labor's Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, says the government funds have made a difference. The advisory board that oversees the distribution of funds consists of private employers, construction organization officials, minority representatives, union officials and vocational-technical school representatives.

"I get calls daily from other states asking how Arkansas has managed to get all these groups to cooperate," Lamkin says. "I tell them necessity brought us together.

"For so long, there was no emphasis on training. Now, Arkansas' construction companies are interested in training people."

Lamkin says employers once resisted training employees for fear of losing apprentices to other companies. Companies now realize that trained employees are worth the investment.

Nabholz Construction Corp. of Conway began training employees in 1973. In 1991, Nabholz consolidated and expanded its training programs by forming the Nabholz University of Construction. "We want to make sure we have a supply of talent," says Leo Jackson, Nabholz's director of personnel and training.

More than 80 percent of Nabholz's managers have participated in or graduated from the program.

"We encourage our new hires to attend the school," Jackson says. "The classes enable them to learn theories and concepts, then go to the sites and put them to work."

In addition to a primary training program in carpentry, Nabholz offers a "top gun" program for craftsmen who aspire to be job-site supervisors.

Nabholz, which was one of the nation's top 400 commercial contractors last year with revenues of $125 million and 350 employees, also has programs to attract high school students.

"We recognize that experienced journeymen are getting older and retiring," Jackson says. "When the supply falls drastically in a few years, we want to be prepared."

According to the AGC's Bolin, the state Department of Education works with AGC in operating a building trades program. Classes offered in high school expose students to construction career possibilities. Forty-three high schools and 11 vocational-technical schools participate.

Like ABC, AGC offers a four-year apprenticeship training program. Journeyman certification is offered in carpentry and masonry.

AGC offers such training at Little Rock and Springdale. It hopes to expand to Harrison and Fort Smith by September.

AGC offers 11 courses for supervisors.

"We try to offer new courses as the demand arises," Bolin says. "Computers and lasers are becoming commonplace, and metric measurements soon will be used."

Bob Shell, president of Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. of Little Rock, has been involved in apprenticeship programs for almost three decades. He has seen an increase in the quality and variety of training. Still, employers are having to work harder to attract skilled workers.

"The statistics tell the story," Shell says. "If we don't convince young people that careers in construction are worthwhile, we're in trouble."
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Title Annotation:Raising Steel, part 2; Associated General Contractors of America Inc.
Author:Harper, Kim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Mar 29, 1992
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