Insight
Pipeline and Pathway
Workforce development serves the construction industry — and also grateful families.
Meta workforce development program
Pam Gilmore and her children, Khloe, 11, and Mason, 13.

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Pam Gilmore remembers the day she found hope again. It was Nov. 4, 2021, and she’d been living in a homeless shelter in DeKalb, Illinois, with her two preteen kids for four months after her turbulent marriage finally reached its breaking point.

She attended an informational session about a new, paid training program in the construction trades starting up in January at the site of the nearby Meta Data Center. She listened to someone from construction company Mortenson describe the jobs she could become qualified for — carpenter, sheet metal worker, electrician — and thought, “Why not me?”

“I applied that very day,” she said. She’d been a stay-at-home mom for eight years, with only stints as a customer service rep, locksmith and gas station clerk on her resume. But she desperately wanted her kids to have a normal life again, and she just knew she could do it. “I am one tough cookie,” said Gilmore, 37.

Six months later, her world is transformed. After graduating from the Hardhat in Hand program, a joint project of five construction companies and social media giant Meta, Gilmore is a wage-earning, registered carpenter apprentice. She holds certifications in first aid, CPR, job readiness, OSHA safety rules and electrical awareness, among other topics. She works at the Mortenson data center construction site every day from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; her son and daughter have to get themselves to the school bus from their new rental housing. And Gilmore has a new, exciting future in mind: four years as a carpenter apprentice, then journeyman status, then maybe a role as a project manager.

“I’m over the moon with my new path in life,” she said, as the tears flowed. “I am so grateful.”

Mortenson’s Hardhat in Hand partnership with Meta has been a lifesaver for Gilmore. But it’s every bit as valuable for the construction industry to employ people like her — healthy, smart, motivated. The industry faces a growing labor shortage. At the end of 2021, 91% of contractors reported having trouble finding enough workers, and 45% of them declined projectsbecause of it. Moreover,41% of construction workers plan to retire by 2031, which could exacerbate the problem.

Mortenson has three aims for workforce development in DeKalb and its sister program in Eagle Mountain, Utah: fill the labor pipeline with qualified workers; contribute to the communities where they’re building; and make the construction workforce, now 89% male and 88% white, more diverse. (According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2021 construction workforce was almost 33% Latino; some Latinos are counted as white in the statistics.)

Mortenson and the other construction companies partnering with Meta have adopted the Hardhat in Hand model, based on a curriculum developed by the National Center for Construction Education and Research in Florida. NCCER is a nonprofit that has provided training for more than 1.5 million people since its founding in 1996. Gilmore and her five classmates spent four weeks in a classroom learning construction basics and another four weeks on a job site practicing hands-on skills. Passing the course and earning certifications has made them attractive candidates for union jobs in the area.

Like many construction companies, Mortenson is making a big push to grow a more stable, more diverse workforce. But Hardhat in Hand is not the company’s first such effort. The DeKalb and Eagle Mountain programs build on successful workforce development programs in the Twin Cities, where Mortenson is headquartered.

Construction Career Foundation Executive Director Pat Wagner has partnered with Mortenson since 2005 on the Minnesota Trades Academy, a paid high school summer internship program in St. Paul. Mortenson also sponsors a CCF Learn2Build program for middle schoolers. The programs educate students “not only about construction but also financial training, safety training, leadership and teamwork,” Wagner said. “We don’t have enough spots for all of the interest that has surfaced.”

Another Mortenson partner, Summit Academy OIC in Minneapolis, offers both carpentry and electrical training programs for a student body that is 73% non-white. Summit graduates have worked on a number of Mortenson projects, from the Huntington Bank Stadium in 2009, to Target Field in 2010, to US Bank Stadium, where the Minnesota Vikings play, in 2016. In the Twin Cities, “we’ve built a new pipeline for [Mortenson],” said Louis King, CEO of Summit Academy.

Unfortunately, filling that pipeline, even with people like Pam Gilmore, can be a slow process. Kathy Johnson, Mortenson’s workforce development manager in DeKalb, interviewed 53 people to arrive at the six who graduated March 25, 2022, from Hardhat in Hand. Other candidates didn’t follow up after an interview or dropped out once the program started.

And even if someone passes the program with flying colors, they may not land a real construction job right away. Gilmore’s classmate Ivan Florenzano, 19, whom Johnson called “a bright kid, great at math,” will likely have to wait a few months to hear if he’s been accepted into the electrical apprenticeship program he’s got his eye on. “There are no guarantees,” Johnson said. “Every apprenticeship program is different.” For her part, she hopes to get at least 30 people through the DeKalb pre-apprenticeship program in 2022. Brianna Brazell, Johnson’s counterpart in Eagle Mountain, wants to get at least 20 people into her first cohort, which starts in June.

The state of Illinois has set aside about $5 million for new apprenticeship programs, Johnson pointed out. “But how do you get the word out?” Gilmore heard about Hardhat in Hand at the homeless shelter. Florenzano’s dad, who happened to see an HHH flier while working on drywall at the Meta Data Center in DeKalb, told his son about it. Aside from those serendipitous events, making potential construction workers aware of training programs can be challenging.

Pat Wagner’s CCF programming takes aim at one of the richest pools of job candidates: high school students. As a result, students in St. Paul, Minnesota, likely hear more about the construction trades than high schoolers elsewhere. Florenzano doesn’t recall hearing anything about the trades in high school in Cicero, a Chicago suburb. “Teachers would say, ‘raise your hand if you’re going to college,’ and everyone would turn to look at the weird kids who didn’t raise their hands.”

A lot of people equate the construction trades with menial work, and “menial work with menial pay,” said Lynn Littlejohn, vice president of community affairs and development for Mortenson. But as of May 2021, the median salary for a construction worker, $48,210, exceeded that for all U.S. occupations, $45,760. The median salary for a boilermaker was $64,290, and for an elevator installer, $97,860. With the right training, construction can be lucrative.

The National Center for Construction Education and Research has a couple of programs aimed at promoting construction career possibilities. Build Your Future provides scholarships, talking points and promotional materials on careers in construction. Career Starter will launch nationwide in 2022 as a sort of LinkedIn for entry-level construction jobs and candidates, available free of charge. There are job boards for experienced tradespeople, said Jennifer Wilkerson, vice president of innovation and advancement for NCCER. “But contractors need help finding entry-level people,” she said. And entry-level people need to know how the industry works. “People know how to apply for college. People don’t know how to get into construction.”

There is work ahead to fill construction’s labor pipeline. But it’s clear that the Hardhat in Hand program benefits more than its participants. It benefits families and, by extension, communities.

Recently Pam Gilmore’s 13-year-old son asked his mom for money to go to the movies with a friend. “It’s the first time he felt comfortable asking me for money for something like that,” she said. Over the past few months, he’s watched his mom study every night, quizzed her before her math test and gained confidence seeing her succeed. Not long ago, he volunteered to be a guide for new students at his school. And her 11-year-old daughter “thinks it’s so cool that I’m in this program, in construction … using ladders and tools.”

I didn't go to college. There are other paths to make a good living.

Photography credit: Amy Boyle Photography

Written by: Monica Moses
Monica has spent her career in journalism, as a writer, editor, strategist and news executive. She has a passion for editorial projects that aim to make the world a better place. Constance Brossa contributed reporting to this story.
 

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