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The Smartest Tool in the Shed
By Erica Sweeney
October 10, 2017
“There’s a whole bunch of people getting ready to walk out of the trades and take the knowledge that they’ve learned over their career. And so how do we pass that down to the next generation?” asks Mike Brewer, president and CEO of the Brewer Companies, a Phoenix, Arizona-based family of plumbing companies.
That question is on the minds of business owners across just about every sector of the construction industry, as they struggle to replace their aging workforce. The median age of the construction workforce was 42.7 in 2016, while the overall U.S. workforce averages 41, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are nearly 4.6 million construction workers over age 45 in the U.S.
As the older generation is inching toward retirement, bringing in a new generation of worker and giving them tools to succeed in construction is an industry-wide conundrum. Mentor programs, partnerships with high schools and two-year colleges as well as company-wide training initiatives are just some of the ways construction companies across the country are sharing the knowledge.
Brewer says the first step is starting a conversation about construction as a viable career path. And, these days, people are starting to listen.
“Just in Phoenix, we have tens of thousands of jobs available, ready today if people would just show up and get into the trades,” he explains. “I say people don’t know they exist. What are we doing as an industry, as a society, as a local government to say ‘Hey, we have all these jobs that are available’ in a very loud way?”
Training the Next Generation
Brewer, 57, began working in plumbing while in high school. His neighbor was a plumbing contractor, and he hired Brewer and his own son to work odd jobs—or “grunt work,” as Brewer calls it—during summers.
When he graduated from high school, Brewer went to work for that neighbor full-time. Learning the plumbing trade was hands-on, Brewer says. After several years of working with the company’s seasoned plumbers, Brewer bought the business in 1989.
In 2003, he became franchisee for Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, which focuses on service and repair in the Phoenix area. Brewer Companies works mostly on residential new construction and will build more than 5,000 homes this year. Brewer’s companies have more than 300 employees combined.
Brewer wants to grow, but struggles to find talented, committed workers. What is more, training newcomers can be costly.
“I can only afford to bring on a few each year,” he says. “I would speculate that more people are retiring and aging out than I could bring in myself.”
To help create a sustainable pipeline of workers, Brewer and others in Arizona are working with key stakeholders, like state legislators, educators, and business leaders, to find solutions. So far, he’s met with lawmakers and toured career and technical education institutions to see what programs already exist.
“Nothing happens overnight,” affirms Brewer, who is the secretary of the American Subcontractors Association of Arizona executive committee. “I've been pushing this now for years, and I’m finally getting some real traction. The way I characterize it is that I keep beating the drum for anyone to listen.
“What I see now is more listening in the marketplace. People do understand that it costs a lot of money go to college. They take on a lot of debt, and that's not always the best solution.”
Some of Brewer’s workforce awareness efforts recently made the local television news. Reporters interviewed one of his 20-something plumbers, who shared his story of going from an $8-an-hour job to being trained as a plumber and earning $42,000 in his first year and possibly $60,000 this year.
After the second interview aired, Brewer’s company received 18 calls from people interested in the field. All were invited to fill out applications, and Brewer says he is trying to figure out how to train so many recruits at once.
Getting the Word Out About Construction
Many construction industry trade associations are also working to bring in the next generation by creating mentorship and certification programs.
The Construction Management Association of America offers certifications—Certified Construction Manager and Certified Manager in Training—to help those new to the industry establish themselves. CMAA also has a mentor-protégé program, where experienced construction managers are paired with those in training to ensure trainees are on the right track.
The goal is to develop career paths through a combination of education and on-the-job training, says Walt Norko, CMAA vice president, professional practice.
“We try to get younger folks set up with a mentor in the industry and work with that person over time to gain knowledge about what opportunities there are in the field,” he explains. “A lot of folks my age, baby boomers, are retiring at some point in the not too distant future. A lot of them want to share that knowledge with younger folks.”
Norko, who is 66, worked in the construction management industry for more than 30 years with the Army Corps of Engineers, private contractors, and others before joining CMAA. He says the industry has changed since he entered the field. Now, more colleges and universities offer construction management degrees, and the ever-increasing focus on technology has had a major impact on the construction industry as a whole.
Brewer says the older generation of workers at his company are often willing to spend time helping the younger generation learn. Because of this in-house training, the company has about a 70 per cent retention rate of younger staff.
The bottom line, says Brewer, is simply getting the word out about all the opportunities that construction offers—whether it’s focusing on the industry’s increasing adoption of technology, the diverse range of jobs available, the potential for high pay or ability to rise through the industry ranks.
“There are thousands of jobs going unfilled today that support our country and infrastructure,” he says. “It’s not only building new structures, but also supporting and fixing old structures. They’re not dirty, grimy jobs. Are they hard work? You bet. Is sweat involved? You bet. It’s called work. And, there are many opportunities out there.”
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