Why do you believe skilled trades training is so important to the construction industry right now?
Jen Schottke: Nearly 50% of the construction trades workforce is set to retire in the next 15 years, likely further expedited by the pandemic. With our most experienced and talented tradespeople preparing to move into retirement, the industry must be committed to elevating the construction career pathway while creating and expanding the education pathways into construction.
Nate Beene: Skilled trades jobs are extremely critical at this point in the construction industry, for many reasons. Many companies are hitting the ceiling or becoming stagnant in their opportunities to grow because of the lack of skilled labor available in the industry. Additionally, it is estimated that by 2028 there will be 530,000 skilled trades jobs in Michigan and annual openings of 47,000 professional trade jobs to fill. We definitely have work to do.
How is your organization helping to reduce the skilled trades gap?
JS: At the West Michigan Construction Institute (WMCI), we build strong communities by preparing the next generation of construction professionals for lifelong careers. We are providing pathways for construction career exploration and readiness for high school students, creating education pathways for those desiring to begin their career in the trades and supporting existing construction professionals with professional development courses, certifications, and opportunities to upskill.
NB: As a construction and landscaping company, Building Bridges Professional Services is not only hiring and developing individuals in the 49507 zip code, which is historically the most disenfranchised zip code in Grand Rapids, we are also supporting the launch of other small minority contractors and offering a great service to homeowners and the business community. We do this by signing contracts, loaning equipment critical to scale, providing space, and giving operations and finance advice.
How is the skilled trades gap affecting other areas of construction? How do your efforts solve these issues, either directly or indirectly?
JS: The construction industry is deeply interconnected. When talking to young people about construction, I often describe the industry as an orchestra. Each trade is like an instrument in the orchestra. Each instrument plays a unique but integral role in the piece (or project). Each player depends on one another to complement and enhance its own performance. Remove one instrument and the outcome is drastically altered. This is the impact the skilled trades gap has on the industry at large. With the ever-widening workforce gap building owners, construction managers, suppliers, and manufacturers are all impacted. We need a complete orchestra to make this beautiful music we call construction.
NB: If the talent pipeline cannot supply the demand for growing companies, we will continue to see product shortages, increased prices, delayed schedules, and dying businesses. Building Bridges Professional Services is a founding member of the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation, an innovative collaboration of five organizations all working with a collective goal of transforming the community and being a platform for socioeconomic transformation and human flourishing. We work with over 500 youth each year teaching them vocational training, case management services, and leadership development.
One of the programs we partner with at GRCCT and support both financially and through mentorship is Youthbuild Grand Rapids. Youthbuild works with cohorts of students to teach them valuable skills in the construction industry, helping them obtain industry-specific credentials as well as GED completion and then placing them in the industry through employer partnerships.
What is your organization doing to engage young people in skilled trades compared to those who have been in the workforce and are looking to make a career change or upskill? How does the training you provide differ between the two groups?
JS: At a technical level, the curriculum our high school students experience (National Center for Construction Education and Research – NCCER) is identical to that of our adult students. A junior starting at WMCI has an opportunity to certify in two levels of the NCCER curriculum before they graduate. This is similar to dual enrollment as they can then begin their post-secondary trades education two levels (or years) ahead of their peers who are just beginning after high school. However, the classroom experience is much different for our high school students vs our adult students.
High school programming is infused with career exploration and readiness. They learn about the hundreds, if not thousands, of careers they can pursue in construction. They hear from industry professionals every single week and visit job sites and contractor facilities on numerous field trips. They hear from HR professionals about what is valuable on a resume. Our goal is to open their minds and then help them focus on construction careers of interest.
Construction can be complicated to access, as it is often a friend and family network. We must be more visible and accessible. The team at WMCI believes deeply in the value of the trades career pathway, and we are cheerleaders and champions for the brilliance of working with hands and minds. We carry this message as we advocate for construction among young people.
Having just opened two months ago, we are still in our infancy, but are very excited for our program to grow!
NB: We have a unique model that truly allows us to meet each individual where they’re at. Through our partnership with Youthbuild Grand Rapids and GRCCT, we have the opportunity to meet with students while in programming and share with them more about the industry and the different career paths they can take.
Additionally, we have opportunities for paid internships that afford them the chance to be introduced to many facets of construction and gain real-life experience on the job. We host job fairs, career days, and strategic networking events to increase their social capital and level of professionalism.
For individuals that are already in the industry and working with us, we have individual development plans that are tailored to their specific goals. We’ve worked hard to integrate training, development, and growth opportunities into the fabric of our DNA internally and through our innovative partnerships.
What is your organization doing to encourage women and minorities to join skilled trades specifically? What outcomes have you seen from these efforts?
JS: In my advocacy work with schools and students, I have the honor of representing the 10% of the industry that are women in construction. It is so important that underrepresented individuals in the industry can see themselves in this career pathway. WMCI is very intentional about bringing in diverse industry professionals that share their career stories with our students, as well. I have had an extraordinary and meaningful career in construction, but I’m also keenly aware of the barriers that continue to exist. I am grateful to be able to have candid conversations with contractors who want to attract more women in the trades. As a result, I’ve seen policy changes that benefit women and for that, I’m tremendously encouraged.
One of our first programs at WMCI has been a Construction ESL course in partnership with the Literacy Center of West Michigan. We have a diverse group of non-native English speakers who we are equipping with both the technical competencies and communication skills needed to be successful in the industry. Our cohorts are intentionally small to ensure they receive the one-on-one instruction necessary and we had a waiting list for our first program. We can’t wait to see where our students choose to go in construction after their time at WMCI. We are also working with committed and dedicated employers focused on inclusion.
NB: 75% of our leadership team on the construction and landscaping side is made up of women or women of color, and 100% of our leadership is women and/or people of color (POC). I would say that our intentionality around DEI speaks for itself. Given the makeup of our leadership team, key goals and objectives are informed from the lens of DEI. Over 70% of our employees are POC and we intentionally design our recruitment efforts with that in mind.
How are you garnering support from other organizations and construction companies to get more individuals trained? When can these companies and organizations expect to see outcomes from your efforts?
JS: WMCI is industry-led and industry-supported in West Michigan and partnerships are at the heart of our work. Hundreds of contractors supported our capital campaign and have now begun using our facility and programs to educate their employees. Additionally, we continue a nearly fifty-year relationship with Grand Rapids Community College where we are committed to ensuring the highest quality construction educational pathways. WMCI is honored to host the 8th and final level of the GRCC electrical apprenticeship program within our facility and we are actively exploring new and innovative programs.
NB: We have relationships with key funders, development companies, and general contractors that are playing a key role through either funding training, providing opportunities for work, or providing the training themselves. Outcomes from our efforts are already being realized by the graduation of 35 students each year from our Youthbuild program, placing 75% of students post-graduation.
This article was originally featured in The Source. Thanks to Jen Schottke and Nate Beene for contributing to this article!
Jen Schottke is the President of the West Michigan Construction Institute, a comprehensive commercial construction educational institute located in Grand Rapids, MI. Jen is passionate about inspiring young people to choose careers in construction.
An advocate for the craft professions, Jen dedicates her time at WMCI leading her team in providing exceptional craft, certification, and leadership training programs, providing student outreach and education opportunities in the K-12 educational system, and advocating for the commercial construction industry.
Jen is a proud Yooper hailing from Houghton in the Keweenaw Peninsula and mother to two great kids – Brooklyn and Jax.
Nate Beene was born and raised in Grand Rapids Michigan. Nate has been married to his lovely wife for 12 years and has four children ages 15, 9, 6, and 3. As CEO of Building Bridges Professional Services and Rising Grinds Cafe, two social enterprises part of the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation network, his role is to be the visionary and drive results through leadership development, key stakeholder engagement, and new business development.
Nate is passionate about developing and providing opportunities to indigenous entrepreneurs and incubating and operating transformational businesses that seek impact outside of just profits. Nate also serves as co-chair of the West Michigan Minority Contractors Association and a board member of Construction Allies in Action, where he advocates for equity and diversity in the construction industry across West Michigan.