Developing Whatcom County’s future construction workforce

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Planning for the present and future with one-the-job training

How many of us grew up with parents and teachers telling us to get a good education or “you’ll end up digging ditches or pounding nails for a living”?

College certainly was one pathway to a good job, but our parents and teachers didn’t always mention the student loan debt that often accompanied the degree. The construction industry — digging ditches and pounding nails — offers another excellent route to a well-paying career.

In Whatcom County, untrained people willing to pass a drug test, learn, show up on time and work hard can earn $45,000 to $60,000 annually, with good benefits, two years into their careers, depending on the trade.

The greatest challenge for contractors has been attracting people to the industry. In Whatcom County and across the country, contractors report difficulty in filling entry-level positions, making it difficult to replace an aging workforce. Plus, an estimated 750,000 people will retire and leave the construction industry within 10 years.

Tom Bajema, training and development coordinator for Andgar Corporation, said his company’s approach to recruiting workers includes reaching youth while they are still in school.

“There is a stereotype that construction is just a job with no career opportunity,” Bajema said. “This lack of understanding steers potential workers to other types of jobs where they feel better career opportunities exist. To break down that stereotype and increase recruiting opportunities, we are working to be more involved at the high school level with (career technical education) program instructors, finding opportunities to visit their classrooms, hosting class tours, and creating worksite learning options for students to get hands-on experience.”

Darren Leyenhorst, general superintendent with Faber Construction, a Whatcom County nonunion general contractor, said successful recruiting requires showing people the high-paying jobs in the industry.

“We are competing with others who are looking for talent, and we need to make our line of work as appealing as possible,” Leyenhorst said. “I think that the narrative in the past has been that the construction industry doesn’t have high-paying jobs or that all the jobs are not mentally challenging. This is not the case. Many of our workers make great incomes and enjoy the different kinds of work and daily problem solving.”

Attracting new talent is the first step, and the second is providing comprehensive and quality training. Some Whatcom contractors use traditional certified apprenticeship programs, and others have developed their own on-the-job training for entry-level workers.
Apprenticeship is a combination of on-the-job training and related classroom instruction under the supervision of a journey-level craft person or trade professional. Historically, entry into apprenticeship programs were through the trade unions, and many people still use this route. Trade unions have established the core of the required proficiencies in skills, knowledge and safety that are taught through apprenticeship. In Washington, certified apprenticeship programs are required to meet the Washington State Apprenticeship & Training Council’s specified number of hours of work under the direct supervision of a journey-level professional, along with established classroom instructional hours.

Certified apprenticeship programs can be offered by both union and nonunion contractors if they meet the specified WSATC requirements for the trade. Entities such as the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington or the Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors offer apprenticeship training programs to nonunion contractors. Nonunion contractors can enroll their employees in these apprenticeship programs while they work for the contractor to meet the state requirements and standards to become a journey-level tradesperson. Some apprenticeship programs also provide college credit toward an associate degree.

Frank Imhof, chairman and founder of IMCO Construction, a nonunion heavy industrial civil general contractor, said there’s good money to be made in the industry.

“Apprenticeship workers at IMCO earn a minimum 50% of the prevailing wage the first year, and by the fourth year they earn 100% of prevailing wage for the trade they work in,” Imhof said. “This means that working 40-hour weeks while in the apprenticeship program, they can make as much as $65,000 per year, and when they reach full journeyman level, they make as much as $140,000 for a year, depending upon the trade they choose.”
Faber Construction also develops workers through on-the-job training, Leyenhorst said.
“Our apprenticeship program helps Faber Construction by giving comprehensive construction learning while developing on-the-job experience,” Leyenhorst said. “The program also lets us integrate new talent into our company culture to ensure they are a fit. It also has been very successful for us, as most who graduate from apprenticeship training are ready to move into leadership roles.”

Mirroring requirements from the Washington State Department of Transportation and other state agencies for public works projects, Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham have enacted local legislation for apprenticeship requirements. Beginning in January 2023, any public works construction project greater than $1 million will require contractors to ensure that 15% of their workforce hours are performed by apprentices.

“Apprenticeship helps any contractor doing public works construction,” Imhof said, “because on public works, contractors must pay prevailing wage or more to their employees. As our workers are aging, it is extremely important to have affordable training for new people who know nothing and are not productive and need training. With a couple of years of training, they become very productive and subject to journey-level wages.”
Leyenhorst said that the apprenticeship requirements are unnecessary.

“It is unfortunate that entities are mandating apprenticeship percentages, as this just drives up the costs of projects overall and makes requirements difficult,” Leyenhorst said. “We do not think that this is needed to encourage apprenticeship. It is to the benefit of Faber Construction and its employees to be involved in an apprenticeship program, as it provides us with skilled workers who know their job and work well with company culture.”
Apprenticeship requirements pose a challenge for nonunion contractors, as their on-the-job training programs are not recognized by the apprenticeship standards. To meet the requirement, nonunion contractors have the option of becoming signatories to a particular trade union, developing their own approved certified apprenticeship program, or sending employees through programs such as the CITC or AGC Inland NW apprenticeship programs.

Each option comes with increased expenses.

To teach its employees, Andgar, a local residential and commercial mechanical contractor, started Andgar University.

“We have training available to all positions and experience levels,” Bajema said. “By having employees with the right skillsets and knowledge on the job, we are able to deliver high-quality products and services to our customers. We also know that by providing quality training programs, it positively impacts worker safety and improves our employee retention rate.”

The need for workers in the trades, both in Whatcom County and across the country, is only going to grow. The federal government committed $1.9 trillion dollars in the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and many construction projects are slated to enter the pipeline, with incredible opportunities for great family wage jobs with benefits. ■