UIX: Chris Wagner's team of minority contractors make construction EZ for local nonprofits

Chris Wagner is building communities, both literally and figuratively, with his team of minority contractors in the EZ Construction Network. By using talented workers within the job site neighborhoods, Wagner is able to bolster careers while building homes where they're most needed. Story by UIX Editor Matthew Russell with images by Steph Harding.

Chris Wagner is building communities, both literally and figuratively, with his team of minority contractors in the EZ Construction Network. By using talented workers within the job site neighborhoods, Wagner is able to bolster careers while building homes where they're most needed.

A 15-year veteran of the construction industry, Wagner was running Energy Czar with Shawn Sherry handling administrative duties, when he founded the EZ Construction Network in 2014. Wagner, a mechanical engineer by trade, wanted to expand his ability to give back to the community. Through relationships with Seeds of PromiseWellhouseWMEAC, and other local nonprofit organizations, the EZ Construction Network is able to provide work opportunities for minority contractors of different trades in their own communities. 
"Basically, our goal is to utilize minority contractors from the community to work on community projects," Wagner says. 
With the help of Seeds of Promise, Wagner and Sherry were able to access a list of licensed and non-licensed contractors, forming the initial network.
"At the end of the day we want to take minority contractors that either have a lot of talent, or are looking for opportunities, or are trying to better themselves professionally," Wagner says. "That could be getting experience, getting a license, getting bonded and insured--all the little things that somehow get missed with disadvantaged contractors. We help them bid on jobs and they help us when we work with nonprofits." 
The EZ Construction Network is made up primarily of minority contractors, although Wagner says they don't discriminate, and any contractors within the community are welcome to join. He says the organization is passionate about providing a service to the community where the residents can actually use the contractors right there in their own neighborhood. 
"The contractors take pride in doing the work in their community," he says. "We've still got a lot of work to do but, for the short period of time that we've been in business with our network, we've done a lot of good and come back with a lot of stories of helping people."
The EZ Construction Network operates in a trade off of work and training. Wagner says costs are kept down by working on projects with minority contractors who in turn improve their professional skills through EZ Construction Network resources. 
"They're working and we're giving back. It's kind of a win-win situation," he says.
Most of the skill improving is handled at the EZ Construction Network offices by Sherry, an army veteran with a degree in criminal justice. When Sherry originally transitioned to the EZ Construction Network from Energy Czar, her position grew to include handling in-house training on crucial communications skills for contractors. She says she enjoys showing the contractors the breakdown of business etiquette, invoicing, purchase orders and other essential tasks, and she's available at the office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.Shawn Sherry
"I love taking the pictures, the before and after pictures, of the projects," Sherry says. "On our website you see how the projects make a complete transformation. It's just nice to see that and something to be proud of."
In working with Seeds of Promise, the network's contractors come across Neighborhood Improvement Program projects. These are funded by grants for amounts up to $7,500, and cover improvements made with energy efficiency in mind, Sherry says. The EZ Construction Network provides contractors for projects like these while offering training in sustainability and energy efficient building through the nonprofit Green Home Institute. Contractors can get further help through the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, which provides the network with the resources to find grant funded projects and training. 
"We take whatever training opportunities we can get," Wagner says. "We look at lead-based paint training, radon, asbestos, abatement training, and safety training, obviously, because construction has a high rate of injury. Safety is always something that we're continuously pushing, and we pass that on to our contractors."
Apart from what contractors can learn from Sherry or any partnering organizations, valuable abatement training is $800 through the city of Grand Rapids, and allows a contractor to bid on municipal abatement work. While it doesn't fetch the highest amount of money for the work, it does provide contractors a solid opportunity for exposure and experience. And, given the right preparation and training in a few key areas, it can set a career on a new trajectory.
"There's a shortage of contractors right now. There's a ton of work, there just aren't enough qualified contractors," Wagner says. "And those out there might wonder why they can't bid on work that's in their own community. They see contractors from Kalamazoo and Battle Creek and say, 'Hey, we can do that work.' But most of the time they're missing something. We're kind of the home base of setting those foundations for these contractors to take them to the next level."
The network has just under 30 contractors currently serving the Greater Grand Rapids area, and may possibly reach 100 and expand its boundaries within the next few years. Where Wagner truly hopes to see progress, however, is in the organization's mentoring program. Through the help of a local nonprofit, contractors in the EZ Construction Network are able to demonstrate job skills to minority children from 13-17 years old.  
"Some of these kids don't go to college and really don't know what they're going to do. We've started a mentoring program where we can bring these kids in, put them with a subcontractor or general contractor in our network--whether it's a plumber or electrician, a drywaller, or painter--and teach them the trade," Wagner says. "If they grasp the skills and want to work, we'll even help them get their builders license so they can become residential builders or commercial or industrial builders. The sky is the limit."
Wagner says bringing awareness of these career paths to younger kids is the real mission. The EZ Construction Network is aimed at getting more people involved in an industry they may have never considered. 
"Just because you can't afford to go to college doesn't mean you can't afford to go pick up a degree or a certificate or some kind of license in trade," Wagner says. "Some of the most successful people I know have certificates and they're builders."
Rockford Construction and Wolverine Worldwide have expressed interest in pulling from the EZ Construction Network in the future, Wagner says. 
"The community wants to see the construction team reflect the residents, so I guess my goal is to prepare minorities to be able to bid on that type of work so the community can see those minorities at work," he says.
To learn more about the EZ Construction Network, visit http://ezconstruction.org/
Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
Photography by Steph Harding  
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