When COVID-19 hit America, almost every business in the country took a direct blow to its wallet. Construction companies were no exception. Many job sites were idled to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and projects that did move forward often had to contend with outbreaks of the virus.
One state that managed to minimize the adverse effects of the pandemic on construction was Wisconsin. While other states were shutting down job sites, Wisconsin largely kept working.
One person who had a front-row seat to that coordinated response was Rebecca Kleefisch, Jobs Ambassador for Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin (ABC). Kleefisch served as lieutenant governor alongside previous Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker from 2011 to 2019, so she came to her new job with a strong background in statewide leadership.
This publication caught up with Kleefisch recently to ask her about ABC’s response to the pandemic and how the organization is handling job training during these challenging times.
How did the pandemic affect ABC’s job training efforts?
KLEEFISCH: Because construction was ruled an essential industry very early, the industry has been exceptionally nimble in continuing training, especially ABC. It continues to build the manufacturing, the agricultural and health-care sectors of the economy. That work must continue, particularly in the public service and health-care areas. We had to switch immediately with no hesitation to a virtual system of apprenticeship. Folks could continue to go to work. Our apprentice system says you can both learn and earn at the same time. We had terrific relationships with our trainers. From day one, there was an almost instant conversion to virtual instruction. People can be educated from the comfort of their own home. Some of this stuff might stick around even after the pandemic.
How did the switch to virtual training affect enrollment in your courses?
KLEEFISCH: At a time when colleges are complaining that their enrollment is down, we had one of our biggest apprentice classes of all time, with 1,800 people in the program. Over 400 new people started taking our classes during the pandemic. People are seeing an economic realignment. They are seeking job security. Knowing that your job will never be outsourced is a huge advantage today.
What are construction employers doing to counteract growing workforce skills shortages?
KLEEFISCH: We just did not have enough people entering construction even before the pandemic. Too many Baby Boomers were retiring. Now they are retiring in even greater numbers. This shortage of workers creates opportunity. If young people choose construction, they avoid student loan debt and they spend those four years earning money. The typical college student has at least $30,000 in debt after graduation. Young people who choose to enter a construction trade come out significantly ahead. These young people who have gone through our training classes are already making good money. They have bought themselves a car or a house. Different choices lead to different outcomes. You can build equity in your life by choosing to work in construction. Plumbing, HVAC, electrical, carpentry, roofing, masonry — we need workers in all these trades. And our construction firms are still hiring. Our companies in Wisconsin are optimistic and they still have a lot of contracts. They still must build things.
What about training and hiring veterans and former inmates? You have long been an outspoken advocate of encouraging more employment opportunities for these two groups.
KLEEFISCH: These are terrific jobs for people re-entering the workforce from any previous life situation. For example, I know of a veteran who lived and worked on the island of St. Thomas. Now he is working in Wisconsin. Vets understand how to show up every time on time. I also spent a lot of time on prison re-entry reform. If you have an education, you are 45% more likely not to recidivate. This is a worthy investment. I cannot think of a better, faster way to break cycles of generational poverty than having entry into a field. We are building equity stories on an everyday basis.
How has COVID-19 forced construction firms to modify their job site practices?
KLEEFISCH: Look at the caution and care that our ABC member companies are taking. They are making sure their employees are safe. They take OSHA regulations very seriously. COVID-19 rules have placed an extra layer on that. Additional handwashing stations and additional sanitizing stations are in place at our job sites. I have seen extra tool-washing stations. I have seen people implement new strategies and new social distancing techniques. People are wearing masks. We have seen screenings when people come onto job sites. Workers are there to take remote temperatures. These are being done to prevent a spread. We have improved contact tracing.
What are the major challenges to your workforce moving forward?
KLEEFISCH: There is concern across the board in the construction industry over the continued extra effort we must put into educating parents and guidance counselors about the terrific opportunities in the construction trades and other blue-collar jobs. Many people still believe that the only way to economic empowerment is a university education. It is going to take a while to get people to believe that these opportunities in the trades are not just equal but a better fit for our citizens. A member of our team regularly talks with schools about the importance of considering these opportunities. This is a direct entry into the middle class. We make sure they have the facts.
Are any efforts being made to recruit more women into the construction trades?
KLEEFISCH: We continue to have that challenge. We regularly do outreach to women. People may have a stereotype in mind. I recently filmed a “Money Jobs” episode about a young woman. Her mom did not understand her. This young woman wanted to swing a hammer and go into carpentry. A local company sent a rep to the school to meet with the mom, the guidance counselor and the young woman to talk. He showed them that this career is a path to economic freedom and empowerment. I did another story about a woman who was laid off due to COVID-19. She found a job as a project manager in construction. One million women left the workforce last month alone. We want them to know that we have good jobs waiting for them in construction.