As construction industry faces shortage of workers, West Michigan groups innovate to fill gap

In what has become a national trend, West Michigan's construction industry is facing a serious shortage of workers — and even more talent will be needed in the near future. To address this, local trade alliances and educational leaders are rising to the challenge and are helping to provide local training programs and shape the future of construction in the region.

The demand for the design and construction of new buildings for housing and mixed-use business applications has been on the rise in Grand Rapids. The influx of residents into the city, as well as the growth of a variety of local industries, from manufacturing to tourism, has created new demand for construction. Yet, the pool of trained and experienced constructions workers has remained static, if not outright shrinking. Area companies are facing unforeseen challenges in meeting the demand for both new construction and for skilled workers, which they are addressing by employing a number of strategies. Included in these strategies are new local training programs and alliances between construction trade associations.


As the construction industry in West Michigan continues to boom, experts predict an even greater demand for skilled construction workers in the not too distant future. Nationally, the focus of the construction industry has been about the talent shortage, which has stemmed in part from an exodus of construction workers during the Great Recession that began in 2007 and lasted for several years. Now, in Grand Rapids, executives and owners of construction companies have put aside competitive interests in favor of working together to recruit and train the current and next generation of skilled trade talent to address both present and future demand. Few other locales feature this unique collaboration between construction companies to address a problem that is happening across the country. (In an Associated General Contractors of America workforce survey, for example, 86 percent of the survey's 1,368 participants said their firm's current workforce challenge was trouble filling salaried and/or hourly positions.)


In order to better understand this collaborative effort, one can take a look at the efforts being undertaken by various local trade groups and education providers. An example of this collaborative effort can be found in a unique partnership of local trade associations known as the CWDA — the Construction Workforce Development Alliance of West Michigan.


CWDA membership includes the Associated Builders and Contractors Western Michigan Chapter (ABCWM), the American Subcontractors Association of Michigan (ASAM), and the Home Builders Association of Greater Grand Rapids (HBAGGR). Working together, these trade associations have adopted a singular goal: presenting the construction industry as a smart career option by looking at different construction career paths. The idea is to try to influence those who are considering a career in the construction trades or to those who may be looking to change careers by appealing to their interest in finding substantial employment in a growing field.


Norm BradyNorm Brady, president and CEO of the ABCWM, credits the work of the CWDA with shaping the image of the construction industry to attract talent and for its ongoing work to develop construction skills training.


“There has been a surge of employers with a need to train employees for specific skill sets,” says Brady, who has served as the CEO of the ABCWM for a little more than four years. With input from the ABCWM and other member trade associations, the CWDA has worked toward creating a training model for construction workers that is based on a national curriculum. The goal of this national curriculum is to train employees to meet the needs of employers.


These training programs are designed for current workers and train them to engage in multitasking by teaching them the basics of reading blue prints, masonry construction , sheet metal fabrication, Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification, forklift operation and licensing, scaffolding use certification, and, in some cases, the life-saving skills that include cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.


In addition to the training model developed by the CWDA, another key West Michigan program that delivers construction skills training can be found at the Michigan Technical Education Center (M-TEC), which is part of Grand Rapids Community College.


M-TEC assists both employers in need of technically-skilled employees and students who are seeking technical training. M-TEC has a strong reputation as a premier provider of workplace training and for partnering with area businesses.


Scott MattsonScott Mattson is the program manager for the job training and construction trades program at M-TEC. Mattson has been with Grand Rapids Community College for 17 years, with the last five years devoted to his current role.


“M-TEC serves the local workforce base and meets the needs of employers by providing specialized training that marries the student with what today’s employers are looking for," Mattson says. M-TEC construction training programs range up to 18 weeks in duration and require a 34-hour weekly commitment on the part of students.


In addition, M-TEC employs a unique approach to training construction workers by engaging current employers who sponsor their employees as students during their training or, in some cases, their retraining in various construction specific disciplines. This collaboration has created a "win/win/win" for the employee the employer and for M-TEC, Mattson says, adding that employer-sponsored enrollment is increasing. While employer sponsorship has been highly successful, it is only one of many ways students may gain entry into M-TEC programs.


In addition to the M-TEC program at Grand Rapids Community College, training for the next generation of workers in the construction trades is in full swing at the Kent Intermediate School District.


Long known for the successful training of potential new workers in certificate careers like auto mechanics, auto body repair and cooking, among others, the Kent Intermediate School District has adopted a systematic approach allowing students to explore a number of varied career options. This systematic approach includes exploration of the construction trades through such programs as Applied Construction Technology at the Kent Career Technical Center (KCTC).


Jarrad GrandyJarrad Grandy, the Director of Career Readiness for the Kent Intermediate School District, says that, “adults have to begin having meaningful conversations with students (early on) about life after the K-12 experience. This includes what path to take for a career that can mean a traditional college degree or (completion of) a certificate or trade program.”


Despite the difficulties facing an industry in need of workers, local educational leaders are rising to the challenge and are helping to shape the future of construction in the region.


Certainly, the days of construction companies simply hanging "Help Wanted" signs out at the job site or running classified ads for construction workers have long since passed. In this new age, construction companies will need to collaborate not only among themselves but also with new and traditional learning providers in order to help ensure the availability of a pool of skilled construction professionals for the years to come.

“Constructing the future” is a 12-part series from Rapid Growth that explores issues facing, and related to, West Michigan’s construction industry and the numerous organizations, trends and innovations seeking to create positive advances in our community. The series is sponsored by Triangle Associates, a West Michigan-based construction company that provides construction management, design/build services, general contracting, integrated project delivery, and more to projects locally and across the country. Read the entire series to date here.

Ken James, the editor of this series, is active in the community and committed to issues surrounding growth, development, opportunity, and access. He has been in West Michigan for 23-plus years. Ken enjoys spending time with his family while enjoying what West Michigan has to offer. Email him at [email protected], or follow him on LinkedIn.
Photography of Mattson and Brady by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
Photograph of Grandy by Steph Harding.