The Construction Users Roundtable

By: Michael Connors Issue: Collaborative Leadership Section: Business

Studies In GREAT-ness

Business Woman Construction Man

Hurricane Katrina was one of those game-changing events in our nation’s history that colored our understanding of everything that came after. This single hurricane exposed weaknesses in the depth and breadth of the professional networks in the Gulf Coast and their ability to handle large scale devastation. Yet, Katrina was a learning experience and an opportunity to create a better future, and that may prove to be invaluable.

One of the most glaring concerns was the limited number of workers in the construction trades. So together, private industries and associations like the Business Roundtable (BRT) and the Construction Users Roundtable (CURT), government, and nonprofit agencies, like FEMA, collaborated to address the need. The result of this unique partnership was the Gulf Coast Workforce Development Initiative (GCWDI). The brainchild of Riley Bechtel, CEO of Bechtel Corporation, and co-chaired by DuPont, the GCWDI was a public/private partnership that had the goal of recruiting and training 20,000 people to work in the construction trades along the Gulf Coast. The result of the GCWDI was a new and lasting respect for construction as a career. It brought a foundation for state and local governments, together with industry, to expose a new generation to the value and rewards of working with your hands. But such strides forward would not be possible without the unifying force of organizations like CURT and their renewed commitment to restoring the Gulf Coast and its culture of independence.

The GCWDI was a resounding success. By the end of 2008, GCWDI brought roughly 22,700 newly trained workers to the region. The Initiative was funded with approximately $3.5 million in private funds and $25 million in federal funds that had been raised through the states—all for the purpose of continued education in the construction trades. Riley Bechtel noted on the Bechtel website that, “This unique initiative is bringing together numerous government agencies, community and trade organizations, academic institutions and the business community to give up to 20,000 people the skills needed for rewarding, long-term careers in construction.

...The graduates are already becoming strong contributors to the Gulf Coast's rebuilding efforts and infrastructure development projects."

Because the effort exceeded its goals, the program was recently transitioned to CURT. Under the CURT leadership, GCWDI became the Get Rewarded for Education and Advancement Training (or I’m GREAT) program, which subsequently became the Choose Construction Initiative (CCI). While the name changed, the objectives remained the same—alter the underlying the perception of the construction trades from solely homes and strip malls to one of prosperity, as well as manage national supply and demand needs.

Along with public relations challenges, there were other glaring obstacles to overcome. Experts at CURT needed to accurately identify the areas where the need was greatest (i.e., are electricians in more demand than pipe fitters?) as well as the number of people needed in the trade. Then they would have to track and monitor the success of those enrolled in the program. Tracking the applicants after they had received their training and had moved on was severely lacking in the I’m GREAT program and would prove costly. Industry experts like Daniel Groves, Director of Operations for CURT, noted, “One of the frustrating parts of I’m GREAT was that with 22,700 people, many of them got lost in the process. After they got trained, if they were to get a job, we would lose track of them.” Consequently, CURT implemented strategies to fix those problems and ensure success as the CCI program progressed.

Groves encapsulated their current goals thusly, “This is what CCI is all about. We took lessons learned from I’m GREAT and applied them to a national model. Number one, you had to find a way to build a business case for who you needed to train, where they needed to be trained, when they needed to be trained, and how many needed to be trained. Second thing is that we needed to be sure we did a better job of tracking. Finally, I’m GREAT was geared towards a recovery and trying to get people on their feet after the recovery. So we’ve got to do something that starts attracting younger people. All of our empirical evidence points to the fact that if you don’t catch them pretty early, something happens and they lose interest.” Building Leadership

To move the program from a disaster recovery relief effort into a sustainable and ongoing educational program that encouraged and developed interest in the construction fields while providing essential and continuous support for the individuals who enrolled, helping to ensure success, the I’m GREAT program morphed into the Choose Construction Initiative which is designed to train and educate based on supply and demand. Mr. Groves elaborated, “For the first time ever, what we are doing is going to owners and getting project information and determining demand. By doing that we are now able to begin understanding how many of which craft, where and when workers are needed. Once we know that, we go in with the recruiting effort which is the second component of CCI. We’re able to look far enough down the road so we can go into high schools and junior highs and say, “There is an option—consider it. When they understand there is a better career there, their attitude changes.

The third thing is making sure they are trained—getting the dollars together and getting them through school, helping them get employed, and then tracking them. We want to help them move to the next level. Those are the three elements: forecasting, recruiting, training and retention.”

Of course, anytime you are trying to bring together such disparate elements of society (i. e., private industry, state and federal agencies, and local school boards) there are some impressive balancing acts that need to take place. Offering some collaborative solutions, Groves said that one of the problems in all of these efforts is that everybody has their own little silo network. What CCI is trying not to do is re-invent this wheel. “We are reaching out to bring together all of the good resources that already exist... we don’t need to create more. We need to harness them all together in a way that helps us utilize the dollars and efforts that exist,” he said.

The one thing that is new is the forecasting model, which is the only one of its kind, predicated on a successful effort in Canada. Furthermore, CCI is trying to create a consistent communication and marketing theme that everyone can use so that everyone is speaking the same language. “Whether you are talking to Dallas, New England or Washington State, it is important for everyone to be communicating the same message in the same way, but localized to make it relevant,” Groves said. Ultimately it is about solutions, based on a replication of best practices that are simple and effective using a collaborative model as a base. As the program takes hold and moves forward, the best is surely yet to come.

People in the construction trades, like the folks in the Gulf, are resilient, enduring and hopeful. Armed with the networking tools and skillsets that an organization like CURT can offer, great things can happen from the ground up. The organization understands that like politics, all community solutions are local. Construction workers represent the American spirit of “Can Do.” No..., “Will Do!” And, they give us all hope for a better tomorrow. So when this spirit can be encouraged, transferred and multiplied by groups like CURT and programs like CCI, great things will happen—just give them some time.

Michael Connors has an M.A. in literature and an extensive background in teaching. He is a Colorado native and spends his free time in the Rockies skiing and hiking.