CCOP hires helped the George Sollitt Construction Company build the Polish Consulate.
With all the attention generated by the giant machinery, the
steel rising in the sky and certainly all the noise, it’s easy to
overlook the people involved. They operate the excavators, survey the site, pound the nails, weld the pipes. And they’re probably the most important part of the process.
“You don’t build buildings in a factory, just by dropping
down parts onto an assembly line,” explains Al Leitschuh, CAE,
president of the Builders Association, a Rosemont-based trade
association serving the Chicago-area commercial construction
industry. “You need people to put the bricks in place.”
And not just any people. Building construction requires
highly skilled workers trained in a number of technical trades:
people who have an aptitude for problem-solving and teamwork, people who like working at a unique setting like a construction site and will stay for the long-term, and increasingly,
people who better reflect the area’s population and represent
all of the communities in which they work.
Taking into account the industry’s many workforce challenges, the Builders Association has embarked on a new program that provides key training to those underrepresented in
the industry. A partnership with three community organizations
and City Colleges of Chicago, the Construction Career Opportunity Program (CCOP) targets minority students and opens the
door to new resources for students and employers alike.
CONSTRUCTION WORKFORCE AGES
Despite the current economic climate, significant long-term
growth in the construction industry is predicted. Construction
jobs are expected to grow by 10 percent nationally by 2016,
according to the U.S. Department of Labor (and 15 percent in
the Chicago area by 2014, according to the Illinois Depart-
ment of Employment Security). The average age of construction workers — typically a younger profession — also is growing. From 1980 to 2000, the most recent data available, the
average age has grown from 36. 6 to 38. 7, according to the Center for Construction Research and Training.
Leitschuh feels that a decline in vocational education in
high schools and increased accessibility to college has caused
construction as a career to suffer. “It’s not exactly a career that
many kids aspire to,” he says. “For whatever reason, parents
nowadays don’t raise kids and say, ‘We really want you to grow
up and be a carpenter.’”
Adding to the dearth of new applicants is the unique process
of getting started in the industry. Most construction jobs, especially in the Chicago area, are union jobs. With the exception of
general journeymen/laborers, those looking to do construction
work must complete an apprenticeship — and pass an exam —
with a specific union. Unions represent everyone from electricians and plumbers to bricklayers and carpenters, and you must
be sponsored into them by either a current member or construction firm.
What’s more, the quality of construction workers is even
more important than before; it’s often not a case of just having
more bodies. “The cycle of work is much quicker (today), and
we need to do more with less,” explains Howard Strong, president of George Sollitt Construction Co. Laborers with specific
areas of expertise need to move into a job site and quickly perform their piece of the work before a different batch of laborers
moves in, and the others move on to a new site.
Attracting people interested in a long-term career in construction is also a challenge, according to Shahara Byford, senior
human resources manager at Pepper Construction. While some
may be attracted to the field because of a particular project in
their neighborhood or higher-than-average wages (U.S. Department of Labor quotes $20 per hour for non-supervisory jobs),
the industry really needs experts who can stay for the long-haul.
At the same time, white males tend to dominate construction
work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2007,
blacks represented 5. 7 percent of U.S. construction workers,
Hispanics 25. 3 percent and women 9. 4 percent. In northeastern Illinois, blacks represented 10.7percent, Hispanics 26. 6
percent and women 2. 9 percent, according to a 2006 study
commissioned by City Colleges of Chicago (CCC).
It’s an issue that has drawn much attention in the construction industry and minority communities alike. The decline
in manufacturing jobs — both nationwide and locally — has
directed even more attention to construction.
Locally, relationships between the construction industry and
minority communities had been strained in the late 1990s and
early 2000s because of a dispute over “set-aside” requirements
for minority-owned businesses. Both Cook County and the city
of Chicago had decades-old ordinances stating that 25 percent
of city construction contracts had to be spent on minority-owned firms; 5 percent on women-owned firms. The construction community’s argument was that such requirements were
illegal because there was no proof of discrimination.
The construction community ultimately prevailed when lawsuits filed against the county and city were successful, in