Personal View: Infrastructure Needs Demand We Fill Skilled Workforce Pipeline Now


David J. Wondolowski, Crain's

Crain's Cleveland recently published a story on the city of Cleveland's proposed $10 million investment into training the local workforce for the critical infrastructure projects ahead of us. (Jan. 30: "Cleveland wants to use $10M for recruitment, training of workers to rebuild city's infrastructure")

As head of the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council (CBCTC), I applaud city leaders for such a program that will help advance the Northeast Ohio economy and expand opportunities for the region's residents.

Crain's reported on the looming infrastructure investments. We are also on the precipice of Bedrock's massive, multibillion-dollar construction project that will transform the Cuyahoga riverfront.

It is critical we address our workforce shortages now. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 8 million skilled-labor jobs were lost from the labor force during the pandemic. About half had been filled as of last year, but that means there were about 4 million vacancies remaining in industries responsible for most transportation, construction and mechanical needs nationwide. And I can tell you that many of those vacancies are here in Ohio.

The city's plan would utilize American Rescue Plan Act dollars to fund Ohio Means Jobs efforts for large scale worker training programs; bolstering trainee and worker support systems and mentorships; developing minority prime contractors and subcontractors, as well as improving outreach and marketing to help build a pipeline of young talent.

While there is more work to be done, we are making progress.

In 2019, the CBCTC partnered with the Construction Employers Association to create and raise money for Cleveland Builds, a pre-apprenticeship, career-readiness program with an emphasis on ensuring the building trades are inclusive, diverse and reflect the demographics of the community.

The CBCTC and Cleveland Builds are working to recruit younger people into the trades directly out of high school and others who are currently in low paying jobs with little room for advancement. This also could help further diversify the construction industry. A recent study from the Institute for Construction Economics Research noted that union programs are more effective than non-union programs at recruiting and training more women and racially diverse groups into the construction industry. The study demonstrates the trades' programs are successful because of deliberate, intentional work and critical partnerships with community-based organizations, industry leaders and government agencies.

These jobs are called "skilled trades" for a reason. Apprenticeships often last as long as a university degree program, including education and training in a classroom and in the field. Many jobs in the modern skilled trades workforce don't require a four-year degree, pay well and have great benefits.

And young people going into the trades aren't saddled with student loan debt, which is currently a crisis preventing college graduates from being able to afford homes and cars.

At a recent meeting, Cleveland City Council heard about such opportunities from Xavier Page Tabb, currently working on the Sherwin-Williams headquarters' project as an unindentured apprentice with Zenith Systems LLC. Tabb spoke in support of using ARPA funding to invest in growing the workforce pipeline for jobs in the skilled trades.

The Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council is the umbrella organization for more than 29-member unions and 12,000 men and woman working in the construction industry in Northeast Ohio.

The economic impact of infrastructure related investment is significant. We need all the resources we can get to make sure we have the workforce to support it.

Wondolowski is executive secretary for the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council.

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