Jennifer Wilkerson, Senior Director of Innovation & Advancement at the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER), shares some insights on how to help shrink the skills gap in the construction industry. An industry-wide issue compounded by the coronavirus have created a situation where training, outreach, and more may help your contracting company succeed.
The complete transcript of this podcast is available below. For more information, contact: NCCER, www.nccer.org
Stephanie Chizik: Thanks so much for joining us today, Jennifer.
Jennifer Wilkerson: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
SC: Could you start by giving our listeners a bit of background from NCCER and yourself as well?
JW: Sure. Absolutely. For me personally, I taught high school English for 13 years and then helped manage my husband’s welding fabrication shop and found out there was this wonderful place, the National Center for Construction Education & Research, and came here as a project manager. The nice thing about NCCER, which it’s better known as, is that it develops curriculum across 70 different craft areas for construction and maintenance. So we’re talking about everything from HVAC to welding to industrial maintenance mechanic to boiler making and even solar photovoltaic technicians.
For me, it was just that idea that you take education and you combine it with the craft, and how important that is to people that have truly become craft professionals in construction. And they deserve the recognition of the years that it takes someone to truly understand how — both in a technical knowledge sense and in a performance sense — to perfect their craft and to be able to go out there and to build the schools that our children go to, the office buildings that we work in, the bridges that we travel across, when we turn on the electric at our home in the morning, or the water. It was just this great “aha” moment for me that there was a place that did all of this.
I think the wonderful thing about NCCER is not only does it offer training, curriculum, whether that’s to high school students, people that have been in the industry for a long time, or even new people coming in at any age in order to be part of this great industry, but also the idea that there’s credentials there, that there’s certifications, and that these credentials and these certifications are just like a college four-year degree or a two-year degree. These are not an alternative, but they are actually an option for people, and they’re equivalent to that because they show that you've gone through one year, two years, three years, four years and further of training and then you've actually put in the time of being in the field and doing those things.
That kind of a combination of who I am and who NCCER is and why I really, truly think the importance of construction education, we’re only at the tip of the iceberg getting that out to the public.
SC: I think that’s great. It sounds like you're personally involved in the advancement. To your point, a lot of our readers and listeners are coatings contractors. From a layperson’s point of view, they might think that it’s just paint. But the more you dig into the industry and the trade, and the ins and outs, that you have to be a chemist essentially of parts A and B, you have to be an artist when you're applying the cove basing.
It sounds like something that could really resonate with our readers. Could you give an overview of the types of training that you guys are doing? When you talk about the different trades, it’s obviously specific to the different types of construction trades. What does that look like?
JW: Sure. There’s a lot of options with that. We design the programs. First of all, NCCER’s an accrediting body. Let me start there. That’s probably the better place to start. We don’t actually do the training ourselves. What we do is we accredit organizations so that they can offer the training. Someone would apply for accreditation, we would make sure that they have the resources and the ability to instruct people, equipment wise, knowledge wise, and then they become accredited with us by sending someone to our train the trainer program, which is called our Master Trainer program.
We teach them the ins and outs of NCCER and help them understand how to provide our curriculum in a standardized manner. Because that’s one thing that’s very important. If we’re going to credential someone, then we need to make sure that they were offered the training in the same way that, whether someone’s in North Carolina, they’re in California, whether they’re in a community college setting or they’re in an industry or an association program, we need to know that those people learned it in the same fashion although personalities certainly are different across instructors and everything like that. But we accredit people.
Then we develop our curriculum so that it can be set up to meet the DOL Office of Apprenticeship standards. So if someone is doing it in a formal apprenticeship program and they want to be registered with their state or they’re registered federally, depending on which state they’re in, then they can do it in that manner and be assured that our curriculum is set up to meet the 144 classroom hours and the 2,000 OJT [on-the-job training] that is required per year in an apprenticeship program.
The nice thing about NCCER is, because we are developed down to a modular level, and that’s equivalent to what a chapter is in a lot of books, people can mix and match those. Contractors that may not necessarily need to have a full apprenticeship program but they want to make sure people have the skills and knowledge at that particular level, at a modular level, they can do it that way, too. At the end of each of our modules, there is a knowledge test, and there is a performance test in order for someone to complete and get a credential that they have finished that particular area, that particular competency. Our curriculum’s designed that way.
Then we also have our assessment side. Our assessment side was designed because there are a lot of people that did not have the opportunity to go through a formal craft training program but they’ve been in the industry and they’ve learned on the job. They can go and take a knowledge assessment, which is our written assessment, and they can become knowledge verified and get a credential for that. There’s also the performance verified. By performing up to the standards that are necessary for our assessment program, they can get a performance verified. If they get both the knowledge verified and performance verified, they become certified. Again, that’s the training side that we offer. We also offer a certification route.
SC: We’re recording this during the pandemic still. Who knows when we won’t be recording during the pandemic, at this point? Have you had to pivot to a lot more virtual opportunities? You mentioned the part of the certification, sounds like they need to be verified that the skill is there, not just the written test portion.
JW: Yes, and we have definitely had to pivot and really think about that. I do think, still, the harder side for any career and technical education program or industry program is going to be that in-person performance side. There’s certainly virtual reality and augmented reality in options that are coming up, but I don't know that we’re quite there yet. I don't know that we’ll get there completely because you can certainly do simulation to help with performance.
But ultimately, you need people that can actually do it and they’ve done the skills, they’re able to perform it in the field under job conditions. So I think that we don’t see that going away. However, the online side for knowledge, back in March whenever COVID first hit all of us and a lot of classrooms were having to scramble and figure out what they were going to do, we really needed to get into that environment. Although we already had online training, online curriculum, which is our NCCER Connect, we didn’t have a way to proctor the test side. So we came up with that very quickly. We have a great staff here. We were able to come up with guidelines and help instructors through Zoom, through GoTo Meeting, through Skype, and how they could monitor classes to remotely proctor their online testing.
Again, the online environment for teaching, I think that there’s a lot of things that we can do in that area and we can get even better at. We need to do more enhanced videos. We need to make sure there’s interactivity as far as students being able to learn, because students learn in all different types of — they have different learning modalities. We need to meet that. We do have some of that with our NCCER Connect, but NCCER is definitely on a mission to up our game there and make sure that we provide as many different craft types in online environments.
SC: That’s great. It sounds like it’s a need and you guys are looking to help fill it, at least a little bit. One area of the industry. That’s great. We talked briefly about the pandemic. It’s one of the challenges going on right now. I think an even bigger challenge that seems to have been more prevalent over the past few years is the gap in the numbers of people who are coming into the trades — the skills gap that we have in construction. Can you give us your take — or NCCER’s take — on why that’s happening and some suggestions as to how we might be able to shrink that gap?
JW: We definitely have been seeing it for a long time. It’s really been a battle for construction simply because we do have an aging workforce. We know that. We don’t have as many people coming into construction — that don’t even know about construction, so many high school students. We do see that gap as far as the average age. A lot of craft professionals are now 50, 51 years old, and yet we don’t have the same amount of students coming into the industry or young people choosing the industry. So we have a gap there. We were at about 1 million craft professionals needed by 2023 prior to the pandemic. I don’t necessarily know that number right now.
But I can tell you this. I was on a conference with Opportunity America not too long ago. Listening to — just with community colleges and what community colleges need to do to help skill up the America people now since COVID-19. Interesting enough, they said that there is — as high as unemployment is in many states, there’s 6.9 million jobs empty in the U.S. due to skill mismatch. That was really interesting seeing that, even in a time where we see so many people unemployed and so many people in need of jobs and starting careers, that we still have so many jobs that can’t be filled. That goes back to, I think, that the American education system has to take a serious look, from all levels, at the direction that we’re pointing students in. We need to make sure that they’re meeting the needs of industry. I think that’s what’s happened in the past, is that we had a lot of people pushed toward 4-year college degrees and felt like that was the definition of success. So many students went and got 4-year college degrees and then are unable to get jobs in their field that they went to school for.
I think that construction, maintenance, manufacturing, all of us have been trying — our mantra has been, “Look at the skills that you have. Does it meet the needs of the economy right now? If it doesn’t, take a second look.” I think what’s happening now that’s really interesting to me is there’s a lot that’s come out since COVID and a lot more people are recognizing that construction’s still going and maintenance’s still going and manufacturing’s still going and we need people in those areas. We are definitely hoping that people will take a second look at career and technical education, at what are the job openings right now and what are the career opportunities for not only young people but also for people that are just out of work.
SC: I think that’s great. That’s definitely widening the net of where people can look for employment. Whether you're new to the workforce or not new to the workforce, for that matter, I would think. Sounds like a great idea. Any tips that you might be able to give to our listeners who are the small business owners who are experiencing some of those challenges of the skills gap that we have in construction right now?
JW: I wish that there was a golden ticket, and that would be the thing that would work. But I would say, one of the things that I always suggest, is if contractors don’t know which high schools or middle schools are within a 20-mile or less radius from their headquarters, that’s where we need to start. We need to look at those schools. We need to start thinking about the pipeline. Because even if they can’t help you today, we want them to be on the track to help you tomorrow. We have to start building the future of our pipeline, our talent pipeline in construction today.
I would say you go out to these schools and people always ask me, “I don’t know who to talk to. I don't know what to say.” So what I say is, “Find out if you can do a teacher appreciation breakfast or a teacher appreciation lunch or you can sponsor something.” It doesn’t have to be a large monetary sum. It’s not about necessarily funding their program. So get in and get in front of these teachers and start talking about what we do.
Because I have found out, when I do talk to teachers and I go and I talk to them about the opportunities in construction or contractors do that, they just don’t have any idea. They don’t know that the math that they teach today, the art that they’re teaching as you're talking about, coating specialists, the art programs don’t know that these kids that are aspiring artists can be an artist in an industry that they can get paid really good money for. So getting into those classrooms and having young people from their companies relate to these kids and talk to them on their level about “This is what I do. This is the pride that I have in what I do. I can drive around my town and say, ‘I painted that. I built that. I designed that.’” That is building their community. That is helping their schools.
If these teachers know that and they have a connection and they can say, “such and such contractor came and visited my classrooms and talked to them and helped me understand how I can connect with them,” that’s where I feel like the difference is and that’s what we need to do. It may not be, again, a right-now fix. Although there’s probably a lot of seniors and a lot of people even that are just out of school that are maybe looking to their teachers for help or their program and trying to figure out “what do I do with the skills I do have?” I think, as contractors, we have to be that answer. October’s a special month for us. It’s Careers in Construction month. We celebrate that in the industry, just trying to give nationwide recognition to the construction industry.
On our Build Your Future website, people can go and find out some things they can do. We’re releasing a lot of great information on September 1 of this year on how to make pledges and get in your classrooms. We’re going to be giving tips and advice to contractors that would like to reach out to their local programs and they just don’t know what to say or what to do. We’re going to be providing that to them, and we hope there will be a lot of connections in the month of October. All year long, but certainly in the month of October.
SC: I love that. That’s so great. Just based on the interviews that I’ve done over the past seven years or so at CoatingsPro Magazine with these contractors, as soon as they get to talk about a project where, like you said, their friends and family can see the work that they’ve done and the change that they’ve made to their local community, it’s just this amazing sense of pride. What a great way to get people connected to that from an earlier age. That’s such a great tip. I love that. Thanks for sharing that one.
SC: Any other changes that you’ve been seeing, either coming down the pike or that have happened over the past few months in this portion of the industry, whether that’s positive or negative? Anything that you’re seeing that we might be able to share with our listeners?
JW: I think the main thing is that we have an opportunity. I really do. I know I already said this, but I just think that we can look at the situation with COVID a lot of different ways and people are doing that. But I think for us, one of the things that I would say in closing is a recent article that has been put out about Google disrupting the college degree. Putting out information and telling people about smaller chunks of learning and how to do that.
I would say just use this as an opportunity. Connect with your local schools. Find out what you can do. There is online training for construction. There are interesting things we can do to reach students where they are and help out. I don't know — as I said, I wish there was some golden ticket or something I could say at this time that’s going on — but I would say just use this as an opportunity. Don’t stop training. Don’t stop reaching out. Use it as an opportunity to actually up your game and really make sure that you're building that talent pipeline.
SC: Yes, if we only had that crystal ball, wouldn’t we all be so much happier?
JW: Absolutely. Yes. For sure.
SC: Those are great tips. Thank you so much, Jennifer. I appreciate all of your time. If people want to follow up with you after this, how could they go ahead and do that?
JW: We have two websites. We have multiple websites. www.NCCER.org, go there to find out about the different curriculums and the assessments and all the different things we offer with training and online. And then also I would say to go to our Build Your Future website, which is www.BYF.org, to find out about our Careers in Construction month and all the different resources that we offer contractors if they would like to reach out to their local schools.
SC: Perfect. Thank you so much. Looking forward to talking to you again, hopefully, in the future. Appreciate all of your time again. Thanks, Jennifer.
JW: Absolutely. Thank you.