Go Build Alabama: Workforce Campaign Nails Solid Growth Metrics

The Go Build Alabama campaign to improve the image of the construction industry in the minds of potential skilled workers has been declared a resounding success by government, education and business leaders.

The state-mandated marketing effort kicked off in 2010 with funding provided by the industrial and commercial construction industry, winning kudos and an award at the recent National Workforce Development Conference.

For several decades, construction had been fighting a perception as a dirty job that somebody had to do, perhaps as a last resort. As a result, the building trades were attracting fewer young people to their ranks, much to the chagrin of employee-hungry building contractors, says Jason Phelps, executive director of the Alabama Construction Recruitment Institute (ACRI), the agency created to coordinate Go Build Alabama.

But now construction is emerging in the minds of Alabama’s youth as a great career opportunity with high-paying jobs for those with the ability and interest in learning a skilled building trade. Families have been pleased to learn the building trades also offer the opportunity for paid apprenticeship work programs and free education. “When students and their parents find out they can end up with a higher paying job than many college graduates, and avoid costly student loans, they want to hear more, ” Phelps says.

Because of Go Build, interest and enrollment in construction education, training and apprenticeship programs in Alabama has surged after many years of decline. The Alabama Department of Education, for example, reported a 51 percent increase in first-year career technical education (CTE) class enrollments in the 2013-14 school year. Among CTE students, 33 percent said Go Build played a direct role in their decision to enter skilled construction trades.

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“Go Build has done a tremendous job helping us educate students about career opportunities in construction, ” says Philip Cleveland, director of Career and Technical Education and Workforce Development for the department.

Pickens County Career Tech Day draws many prospective tradespeople.

Cleveland applauds Go Build’s educational materials, including a website that provides in-depth information on various building trades and video testimonials by working tradespeople. The site describes the wide variety of construction education and training opportunities at community colleges, career technical centers and apprenticeship programs. Those materials are helpful to career coaches and counselors, as well as in the new ninth grade career curriculum in high schools across the state, Cleveland says.

Skilled building trade apprentice programs, some administered by trade unions and others by construction companies, have seen a significant boost in interest, participation and retention thanks to Go Build. Since the inception of the campaign, 70 percent of apprenticeship programs have seen a significant increase in applications. “Apprentice programs are expanding because of the increase in interest, and everyone is pleased about the quality of the candidates they are getting, ” says Teresa Magnus, spokesperson for the Alabama Building Trades Alliance.

The boost in the numbers of young people interested in and entering skilled building trades is good news to an industry struggling to replace retiring skilled workers. As the Go Build website points out, for every four tradespeople leaving the industry only one is entering.

ACRI was created by Act 220 of the 2010 Alabama Legislature. The original bill was sponsored by Sen. Wendell Mitchell and cosponsored by Sen. Del Marsh. Funding for ACRI and its Go Build efforts are provided through an employer fee levied upon wages paid on commercial and industrial projects in Alabama. Approximately $90 is paid for every $100, 000 in wages, with the goal of raising approximately $1.75 million per year.

The program has used print advertisement, television and radio spots, its gobuildalabama.com website, social media and outreach through the schools to help reinvent the reputation of the construction industry. Recent additions include an e-textbook and an app. Big Communications, in Birmingham, provides marketing and advertising support for the ongoing campaign. “Go Build is reaching these young people in ways they are comfortable with, interested in and respond to, ” Cleveland says.

Students try their hands at laying bricks and basic carpentry at the Southwest Alabama Workforce Development Council’s Worlds of Opportunity Expo.

The Go Build website currently receives more than 50, 000 visits each year, according to ACRI. Its Facebook page has drawn more than 13, 400 fans. Every county in the state has received Go Build visits, and more than 256, 000 students have been personally touched by the program statewide. “But it’s an ongoing process. As long as there continues to be a need and we continue to get results, the Go Build campaign will likely keep going, ” Phelps says.

Recognizing a critical need for coordinated marketing that would improve the reputation of their industry, the Alabama Associated General Contractors (AGC), the Associated Builders and Contractors of Alabama (ABC) and the Alabama AFL-CIO lobbied for the Go Build program.

Their willingness to work together was fueled by a 2007 U.S. Department of Labor estimate that the industry would be 1.5 million workers short by 2012. Not nearly enough new workers were being trained to become boilermakers, carpenters, equipment operators,  electricians, insulation workers, pipefitters and welders for industrial and commercial construction projects.

“Skilled workers were ‘aging out’ and retiring in significant numbers, and there weren’t enough new workers coming into the industry to replace them, ” says Jeff Rodgers, vice president of Alabama AGC and its representative on ACRI’s board of directors.

While the Great Recession temporarily reduced that shortage, the slowly rebounding economy has brought increased need for workers.

“We’re fortunate Go Build is working, because we continue to face shortages in the skilled trades, ” says Brad Condray, vice president of operations for Golden Construction LLC and ABC representative on the ACRI board.

Go Build’s successes were honored at the National Workforce Development Conference in November. The campaign was recognized at the conference during Construction Users Roundtable Awards of Excellence Celebration.

Other states have been trying to institute similar industry promotion campaigns but often with limited results. Georgia, for example, has its own Go Build program. “The reason this program works so well in Alabama is that everyone at the table is cooperating to promote the entire industry, not just one segment of it, ” Phelps says. “It’s rare and critical to have that kind of collaboration and coordinated effort.”

Kathy Hagood and Robert Fouts are freelancers for Business Alabama. Hagood is based in Homewood and Fouts in Montgomery.

text by kathy hagood • photos by robert fouts

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