There was a time when young job seekers considered construction work a poor choice — before a collaborative initiative changed their minds: People can make a good living working with their hands, and the helping hands of Go Build Alabama point the way.
The campaign launched in 2010, driven by the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute (ACRI), which was established by the Alabama Legislature one year earlier.
“Go Build Alabama aims to educate young people in the value of learning a trade, dispel misconceptions about construction jobs, and inspire young people to consider building a career as a skilled tradesman,” its mission statement reads.
According to Jason Phelps, ACRI’s executive director, it’s working. “Construction training programs, secondary programs, community college training and apprenticeships have seen increased numbers,” he says. “We are putting more people in the pipeline.”
Since the drive’s origin, enrollment in construction trade training programs has increased by 24% across the state. More than 30% of high school students who have opted for construction career technical education say the campaign influenced their decision to start a construction career. Phelps adds, “There is an ever-increasing demand for quality well-trained workers.”
But first, opinions and attitudes must change. Stereotypes must be eliminated.
“We need to get away from the mindset that every single person must have college to be successful,” says Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington. “Careers in trades are just as important and as necessary in our economy as any other position.”
The Labor secretary is adamant about placing qualified students in good-paying, hands-on careers. “Training for skilled trades is a high priority with the Alabama Department of Labor,” he says. “It is a win for everyone.”
Go Build Alabama’s partners include Alabama AFL-CIO, Associated Builders and Contractors of Alabama, Alabama Associated General Contractors, Alabama Road Builders Association, American Subcontractors Association, Alabama Construction Trade Unions, Alabama Community College System, Alabama Constructive Users Roundtable and construction business owners throughout the state.
Phelps continues, “Early on we recognized three negative perceptions: one — construction/skills/trades are dirty jobs. Two — they don’t pay well. Three — you do not need an education to obtain such work. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The program’s director says huge opportunities await those choosing construction as a career. “Apprentice programs have been around forever and are a tried and true method of taking someone with no skills or experience and turning them into masters of their chosen fields. Over a course of four or five years in classrooms and on-the-job training, one can reach highly skilled levels and certifications.”
Phelps notes that construction is not a job in itself, but an umbrella of careers — including electricians, welders, sheet metal workers, boilermakers, linemen and more.
ACRI and campaign members deploy, visiting middle schools, high schools, community colleges and other venues. They present their case and address what young audiences ask most: “Show me the money.”
“These are compelling careers,” says Amber Kinney, an ACRI board member. “I tell potential job seekers, it is possible to come right out of high school, take accredited classes at a trade center, and often have tuition fees reimbursed by a company waiting to hire you.”
She adds, “I tell them, ‘You can own a house by age 24,’” — as opposed to paying back a college loan indefinitely.
Phelps says, “We don’t like to say, ‘Don’t go to a university.’ Instead, we say, ‘Here are different doors to open into industry.’ We present what we have to offer.”
What they offer is an avenue to learn in-demand highly marketable skills with employment opportunities immediately upon finishing — or even during — training. Whereas job placement with a college degree in some fields might take a bit longer.
Just as job seekers have evolved, so have the means of recruitment. Phelps acknowledges, “The world is a different place since the campaign’s 2009 inception. Go Build Alabama places more emphasis on social media and its website. For the teen to young adult target audience, social media is their world. … We spent a lot of work on our website to give a more updated look and feel for a connection with the 13 to 30 age group.”
Kinney notes, “The website is more personalized. It targets specific items on landing pages and allows us to connect more quickly to meet the user’s needs. Everything we do needs to stay on-trend. We don’t want people turning away from our information because they feel our website is dated.”
In March the website premiered a career quiz — a self-directed series of questions, identifying interests, skill sets and other factors for those interested in pursuing trade-skills education and the methods of doing so. Having that insight, the user is directed to areas of study, programs, apprenticeship opportunities and more.
There is also more emphasis on diversity. “That’s near and dear to my heart,” says Kinney, who is also the HR director and EEO officer of Dunn Construction, in Birmingham. “We encourage and are reaching out to more women entering the workplace.”
The campaign also works closely with community colleges.
“Go Build Alabama is a great partner,” says Barry May, executive director of workforce and economic development at the Alabama Community College System. With 24 schools in the organization, he adds, “We value the work the campaign has done in its innovative media presentations. It helps direct students from across the state to our construction programs.
It has been invaluable.”
Since Go Build Alabama’s debut, community colleges have seen an increase in short-term programs. “More employers want workers trained quickly and ready for work,” May says.
“Entry level jobs lead to higher paying jobs. Construction alone in our state provides close to 123,000 jobs,” he notes. “Their average salary is $60,195.” A project manager can make upward of $134,910.”
He notes that in addition to reaching students, another major push is to reach parents. “We find high school agers listen to their parents career suggestions.”
As for the future, with automation, robotics and other advancing technologies on the horizon, experts do not see a threat. “Actually, the need will increase,” says May. “I believe we are seeing an uptick for higher skills training. I see our community college system as critical to filling those needs for higher skilled jobs to face future technologies.”
Addressing present needs, State Labor Secretary Washington adds, “Alabama’s economy is recovering from the impact of a pandemic. It is critical that we develop ways for those looking for jobs to re-enter the workforce. Training for skilled trades is a high priority for Alabama and those jobs can be quite lucrative for job seekers.”
Washington sums up the state’s relationship and the push for trade jobs: “Go Build Alabama and the Alabama Department of Labor’s partnership has been outstanding. We fully support its mission and are happy to help. At the end of the day, we are trying to get folks into rewarding careers. We want them to stay in Alabama. Our future is bright.”
Emmett Burnett is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Satsuma. This story appeared in the September 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.