Washington currently has a variety of job training programs to align residents to fill industry needs, but several business advocates say the state falls short on one piece of that formula: recruitment and outreach. Construction sector representatives testified this week in front of the Senate Higher Education Committee that SB 5713 would improve employer efforts to close skilled workforce gaps by getting more people in the door.
The bill would create the Skilled Worker Outreach, Recruitment, and Key Training program, which would award matched private-public grants to bolster the state’s skilled workforce through business and industry partnerships. Applicants for the grant must either have a skilled worker training program, or are developing one. Also, they would be required to detail how the grant will help recruit employees into these programs and meet industry needs or workforce gaps.
Prime sponsor is Ranking Minority Member State Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1), with cosponsorship from State Sens. Lynda Wilson (R-17), Curtis King (R-14), and Hans Zeiger (R-25).
Palumbo told panel members that the bill “essentially provides an opportunity for our employers to go out and get these kids into these fields by training them on the job…like a pre-apprenticeship program.”
Addressing Worker Shortages
A 2016 national survey by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 69 percent of the 1,459 surveyed construction firms indicated they have difficulty filling hourly craft jobs. For Washington firms, this figure was 70 percent.
These jobs range from pipe layers, carpenters, superintendents, concrete workers, truck drivers, labors, and equipment operators, according to Nancy Monro. She is Executive Manager for MidMountain Contractors, a Kirkland-based company specializing in civil utility and roadway construction projects.
On Tuesday, February 14, Palumbo told the committee that early integration within the state’s high schools is key to preparing students for jobs in high-demand fields.
He added, “Some of the most powerful things we can do…is to actually have them touch it, feel it, smell it, when they are younger…whether they show up at Amazon or somewhere doing an internship, or in this case maybe trades. That’s what gets them excited, and it becomes a tangible career path.”
Raising Awareness For Industry Jobs
According to construction industry leaders like Monro, that kind of momentum is what has been lacking for filling jobs. She said that “in the construction industry, we have a worker shortage and a very difficult time attracting and retaining people to the industry,” whose workers “build and improve the communities” where “we live and work.”
Monro added that, with this bill, “industry has stepped up to the plate to create these opportunities, and is asking the legislature to create a grant program that will help raise awareness among young people currently stuck in minimum-wage jobs.”
Peter Guzman, Policy Associate of Workforce Education for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) argued the bill would replicate similar efforts under the board’s Job Skills Program.
That program provides new and existing employee training in response to technological or economic changes in industries including commerce, trade, or manufacturing, to prevent job loss.
Guzman told panel members that “over the past 30 years” the program “has proven to be successful, accessible, and responsive to industry needs by providing short-term job-specific training for new and incumbent workers in our growth industry sectors.”
He recommended amendments that emphasize “more of an outreach, recruitment, and awareness training, and not so much a skilled worker training program.”
David D’Hondt, Executive Vice President of the Associated General Contractors of Washington disagreed saying, “It’s not a duplication. What’s not being done right now is actually the recruitment and outreach to get folks” into these industries “in a large-scale way.”
According to D’Hondt, Palumbo’s measure mirrors 2015 Colorado legislation which established a grant program to respond to worker shortages. With the program’s funding, the state established a four-week apprenticeship program, where graduates were greeted by open shop and union contractors looking to hire them upon graduation.
D’Hondt said Washington’s version would allow for an improved construction awareness website, and increased collaboration with technical colleges across the state to help state residents find industry jobs.
Terry Tilton, Community Relations Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, suggested adding a few technical amendments to expand the measure’s effectiveness.
One would specify that the bill’s outreach effort would combine with the state’s existing pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. Another would add “labor and management training programs” to the bill’s section on coordination efforts.
What’s really successful is using those programs together, according Tilton. “We’ve got a system in place for pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship” programs, “and we’d like to add some more language to that,” she added.