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Updated: May 2, 2022

Building a workforce: Construction firms ramp up workforce development to recruit next generation

Photo / Tim Greenway For an apprenticeship program, Sheridan Construction’s Dylan Hapworth works with a range of high school students from Fairfield, Pittsfield and surrounding areas.

Several of David Brann’s friends haven’t really figured out what they want to do when they graduate high school in a few months. But Brann, an 18-year-old Pittsfield resident, has already begun the next chapter of his education. For the past month, he’s one of the first two apprentices that a regional construction company is hosting for the next year as part of a new, state-funded program.

Brann is getting paid and getting hands-on experience during the school day. It also preps him to one day join the company, Fairfield-based Sheridan Construction Corp., as a young but experienced worker. And the hope is that he sticks around awhile.

Filling the retirement gap

Entering into a registered construction apprenticeship is a “win-win-win” for the future worker, the company and the state, says Dylan Hapworth, Sheridan’s workforce development coordinator.

Over 40% of the national construction workforce is expected to retire by 2031, Hapworth says, citing an estimate from a 2017 report from the National Center for Construction Education and Research.

“And currently, there’s nobody knocking on the door trying to get a job in construction,” he says . “It’s actually quite difficult to recruit right now, even the old school ways of just putting out ads in maybe the classifieds or on Facebook, even those [ways] are not good enough.”

What does work is partnering with vocational schools to attract interested high schoolers to the apprenticeship program, Hapworth said. The plan is for those students to clock in at least 2,000 hours of paid work or learning opportunities with the company. After achieving that, students receive a certificate they can use to ascertain that they’ve put in the time to learn the industry.

Workforce development programs like this one are being funded by the Maine Department of Labor, which announced in January the availability of up to $12 million in federal funds for developing or expanding apprenticeships in various industries. According to Jessica Picard, the agency’s spokesperson, “there are currently over 1,100 apprentices in Maine in a variety of occupations, with room to grow.”

She says that no grants have been officially funded yet, although dispersals are expected to be as high as $3 million.

“These apprenticeships are part of a larger effort by the [Gov. Janet] Mills administration to address the longstanding workforce shortage issue in Maine,” she added in an emailed statement.

There were 33,200 total construction sector jobs in Maine in January, according to Picard. She estimated there were about 1,650 unfilled construction job vacancies across the state that month, basing her “ballpark figure” off of the national, sector-specific seasonally adjusted job opening rate of 4.8% in that month.

Even though the agency doesn’t track workforce-wide job retention, both Dan Wildes and Herb Sargent, the chief executives of Sheridan and Sargent Corp., respectively, agreed in interviews that worker retention is an issue.

“Apprentices in Maine who completed their program in the last two years, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, increased their wages, on average, by nearly 40%, and 94% of apprentices continue their employment with their apprenticeship-sponsoring business,” noted an agency news release in January.

Getting and keeping those workers will be critical not just for the success of individual companies, but to make sure any number of initiatives or projects across Maine come to fruition and use local workers, Hapworth says .

“It hasn’t happened yet, but if [construction companies] don’t get ahead of this curve, out-of-state companies are going to start coming to Maine and doing these jobs that Maine construction businesses should do,” he says.

Recruiting and retention concerns

Over at Sargent Corp., a construction services company whose local offices are in Old Town, management has also tried tackling the recruitment and retention concern with further education, albeit not a registered apprenticeship program like Sheridan.

Students typically come to Sargent several days a week for roughly a month and a half for a series of training lessons (management reconfigured the program for the first two years of the pandemic; the company anticipates it will resume with a slightly different format in 2023). Practical, hands-on lessons might span from pouring a concrete slab to handling a specific type of saw or pump.

Photo / Courtesy of Sargent Corp.
Herb Sargent, president and CEO of Sargent Corp., is working with workforce development programs to develop a new wave of workers.

But to Herb Sargent, the company’s president and CEO, the point isn’t necessarily just to create more productive, trained future construction workers. He wants to lay the groundwork for young people to have the soft skills they need to become a better community member in general.

“We can’t do everything in six weeks to build the person,” Sargent says. “All we can really do from a ‘build-the-person’ standpoint, for primarily imminent high school grads, is try to impose the idea that there is potentially more for them [in life] if they take control” and be intentional.

One way of getting to that goal involves integrating financial literacy. And how does Sargent give kids a practical money lesson? By simulating what a 401(k) account might look like after decades of deposits.

Essentially, every student is given a jar in which they can make a daily deposit up to $3.50 over the course of the six weeks. Then Sargent matches what the students have added, plus an extra 8% for interest. That $3.50 daily deposit can quickly turn into hundreds of dollars, which the company then gives to the students.

When students think it’s unfair that some students ultimately receive more than others, Sargent tells them it’s “the cheapest lesson they’ll ever learn.”

“I’ve long been a proponent for retirement planning and making sure that our employees, if they come and work 30 to 40 years in our industry, retire with a strong sense of financial dignity” regardless of if they stay with the company, Sargent says.

But naturally, a dignified worker might be more willing to stay with a company, whether because of practical apprenticeship courses or being granted time to pursue additional certifications, rather than take a gamble elsewhere. Developing better benefits, like built-in schedule flexibility or opportunities to work on local job sites, and ensuring a smooth onboarding process with frequent communication will also be necessary for construction companies to remain competitive for worker retention going forward, Hapworth says.

Either way, Brann — one of Sheridan’s two current apprentices — isn’t exactly on track to be part of the solution to the construction industry worker retention issue. He plans to save up enough money to buy a multi-unit property and, hopefully, retire early.

“I have a different view on what I want to do with my life [than] I feel other people do,” Brann says. “By the time I’m 35, I’m hoping to be retired, and I’m gonna have two or three apartment buildings by then — and I’ll be living in one of them.”

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