Many businesses are guided by a shared set of principles or ideals. In construction, these core beliefs can serve to attract new clients, build relationships with trade partners and, in some instances, open doors of opportunity for future generations of industry leaders.
Such is the case for J.H. Findorff & Son Inc. (Findorff), a Wisconsin-based general contracting firm with inspiring core values based on character, community and craftsmanship. In its commitment to provide the highest level of service, Findorff participates in a variety of initiatives to attract new talent to the skilled trades.
For the last several years, the company has offered apprenticeship opportunities to high school students in the Greater Madison region, enabling them to explore careers in construction while getting paid. This undertaking complements the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship (YA) program, part of a statewide school-to-work initiative that combines academic and technical instruction with mentored on-the-job learning.
“Youth apprenticeship provides an invaluable experience to high school students not only in a career field of their interest, but also in the ability to build life-ready skills that are applicable in the workforce,” states Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Secretary Ray Allen. “Wisconsin’s unemployment rate currently sits at 2.8 percent. It’s an unprecedented, historic low and programs like YA have been and will be crucial in maintaining opportunities for both the young men and women of our state as well as our employers.”
Through YA, students have the option to work in 11 different career fields, ranging from construction to communication to manufacturing to health care. “We’re also taking this program a step further by working to create a bridge from youth apprenticeships to registered apprenticeships that gives businesses and students further opportunities to create a working, learning relationship that leads to skilled employees,” Allen adds.
Each year, an increasing number of employers participate in YA, which has been around for a quarter century. In 2014, Findorff consulted with a local school official in an effort to help increase program participation.
“We feel youth apprenticeships are a great way to get high school students involved in the construction process,” says Matt Breunig, Findorff’s Director of Project Management. “As such, we have teamed up with several school districts and the Dane County School Consortium to find students who are interested in this mutually beneficial opportunity.”
A Collaborative Opportunity
With a mission to provide today’s youth with a pathway to tomorrow’s careers, the Dane County School Consortium (DCSC) partners with local businesses and community groups to bring innovative learning programs to students in 16 school districts.
Employers receive several benefits from partnering with DCSC. For one, this collaboration enables companies to develop a recruitment pipeline for future prospective employees, which inherently increases workforce diversity. This avenue for new hires could also potentially reduce employee turnover, as workers already understand the employer’s in-house dynamics and expectations.
Mentors can demonstrate industry leadership by offering input on academic instruction to ensure it aligns with real-world construction needs. In the classroom, highly motivated students gain technical skills that boost their performance in the field, which makes on-the-job training much more effective. Working with student apprentices also fosters positive relationships with school districts – which could lead to future work opportunities or positive referrals.
“Mentors must be willing to coach their apprentices throughout these learning experiences. Mentors are not there to break students down, but to build them up,” says DCSC Director Josh Fassl. “Our employers have really taken this to heart to support the students and teach them what it takes to be successful in the construction industry.”
A total of 207 employers, 267 students and 14 schools in Dane County participated in YA during the 2017-18 academic year. Nearly 40 students (out of 307 students statewide) were enrolled in the YA track focusing on architecture and construction.
Students on the architecture and construction path must commit to working 10 to 15 hours per week on top of completing their traditional high school coursework. Once-a-week night courses help to emphasize commercial construction techniques in many areas, including first-aid training, OSHA-10 certification, site layout processes, floor/wall framing and installation, electrical, plumbing, masonry and concrete work and roofing.
“YA is not like other work-based programs,” Fassl says. “With YA, you’re getting school-connected support – whether it’s screening students to ensure they have compatible personalities and work ethics, or making sure they show up for work and are responsible, or guiding them through learning challenges on a job site.”
He continues, “One of the challenges we have is trying to meet the demands of our construction partners – several of them are looking for more students because we’ve been so successful. We do continually post opportunities and continue to try to recruit more students. These efforts are working, but we are a bit slower that some of our partners might like. It takes us time to find a student who would be a good fit for an opportunity. Ultimately, our participating employers have been rewarded with successful student placements that have resulted into long-term employment.”
A Worthwhile Investment in Today’s Youth
Since the 2014-15 academic year, Findorff has worked with a total of 10 youth apprentices on various school construction projects. “We look for students who are excited about the construction industry, who show they can be responsible for being on time and have an eagerness to learn. We also try to make sure the opportunities we offer align with students’ individual interests,” Breunig says.
But why should one of the Midwest’s largest, most respected general contractors invest in developing a youth apprenticeship program? Doesn’t Findorff usually attract the “cream of the crop,” the best of the best when it comes to potential new hires?
“Seeking these types of opportunities is built into our culture,” Breunig explains. “Generating excitement among youth that construction is a viable, rewarding career choice is good for them – and for our industry.”
He adds, “Our project managers and superintendents are already building relationships with the school districts that select us to work on their construction projects. Hiring youth from those districts makes these jobs even more meaningful.”
Brian Stark, a Superintendent at Findorff, feels the mentorship role really brings to the forefront Findorff’s commitment to communities.
“The ability to have young individuals be part of a school’s construction is truly special. They are getting the opportunity to support future generations of students in their own communities,” Stark says. He adds, “Watching the progression of our youth apprentices has been a great experience. Starting off, these individuals have little previous knowledge of the construction trades. By their last day, they are critically thinking about problems and coming up with solutions to complete their tasks and help the project move forward.”
A Transformative Mission
In its mission to increase awareness and appreciation for construction careers, Findorff also leads job site tours for high schoolers, visits elementary classrooms to introduce young learners to construction, and interacts with middle school and high school students through the School Makes a Difference program, an experiential learning platform where presenters share their career journeys.
This passion to engage youth in construction continues to evolve. This summer, Findorff hosted a weeklong construction camp to teach high schoolers the ins and outs of general contracting. Thirteen students participated in this inaugural event, where Findorff’s staff – ranging from business development and preconstruction personnel to project managers and superintendents – shared what it takes to construct a building. The concepts included project bidding, permitting, budgeting and construction management. Students even got a dose of on-the-job training with a visit to an active construction site, where industry professionals shared tips on how to stay injury-free in the workplace.
Stepping Up to Fill the Talent Pipeline
By 2020, Adecco analysts estimate 31 million positions in construction, engineering, and manufacturing will be left vacant due to baby-boomer retirement. Obviously, the construction trades are in desperate need of qualified, dedicated workers to fill the gap; however, skilled labor shortages will remain insolvent unless construction professionals step up to help.
To fill the construction talent pipeline, Findorff partners with local unions and universities and participates in local career fairs to engage potential hires. But to sustain – and advance – the construction industry, attracting younger generations of workers is key.
“It is important to backfill the skilled trades jobs created by the retirement of older generations. It is also vital for young people to learn more about what it means to be in construction and the opportunities that these careers provide,” Breunig notes. He adds that younger generations have proven to be exceptional at leveraging technology and brainstorming innovative ideas – a real perk for any forward-thinking business.
In a world filled with many profit-driven opportunities, consider the intrinsically enriching prospect of inspiring today’s youth to enter the building and construction workforce. You don’t have to have special equipment or certifications to make a difference. Just make yourself available to share the knowledge you’ve spent your entire career accumulating – particularly in the communities in which you live and work.
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