A group of new interns started at Bremik Construction this summer, hoping to earn enough experience to gain traction in the industry.
While skilled laborers once worked their way up through apprenticeships in the trades like carpentry to eventually become project superintendents, today's supers are half and half skilled workers and college-educated workers — a shift in the labor pipeline for the construction industry, while there's still a scarcity of blue-collar trainees.
At Bremik, once someone is hired as a full-time project engineer, they get to choose their path at the next opportunity for promotion, taking either the project manager or superintendent path.
That's unique because superintendents are usually out in the field, on-site, and have a background in skilled labor, whereas project managers usually operate out of the main office and have higher education degrees. But that strict divide isn't workable in the increasingly scarce blue-collar fields as shop classes drop out of public education — at least, Bremik is trying a new approach.
Mike Greenslade, vice president, and Bob Trapa, director of construction, established the overall program fundamentals and then tied those to the people they're pursuing by reaching out to universities.
"Really the fundamental element of the program is this: we want our interns to experience building because we are true believers of the builder businessman approach," Trapa said. "You need to be a builder first before you can really understand the business. How can you be a great estimator if you don't know how assemblies go together? How do you know the change order is accurately priced if you don't understand productivity or how a subcontractor works in the field?"
People coming up through the university system are changing the way the of the skilled trades workforce pipeline.
"They're fantastic processors," Trapa said. "This is where the industry has evolved into processes, whether it's change order or submittals. These folks are fantastic at that, but what they lack is that experience in building. If we can connect those two and we can develope that individual to really a truly well-rounded person, when they come out of school and are ready to start their first job it's beneficial for them and beneficial for us."
It's a long track for the company and the individuals, but Bremik sees the payoff.
"These kids grew up with a computer and cell phone. Tech is second nature to them. We're seeing that continue to change our industry," Greenslade said. "We're looking at all those skillsets and personalities when we're interviewing these kids … we plug them into the field and we teach them how to build. They're learning something they've never been exposed to, it's boots on the ground out there involved in helping scheduled a concrete pour and trying to show them all the different facets of how to build buildings and how the field operates."
Bremik generally offers positions to somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the interns, including returning internships and full-time positions.
"The industry has a label of more blue collar, and what a lot of people don't realize is we're made up of professionals throughout the entire spectrum from design to construction. Your intellect is challenged, it's not just a matter of pounding a nail, you have to be pretty savvy on the computer," Trapa said. "If that message was given more toward the younger kids as they are graduating from high school — that they could have an option to pursue either a trade, or continue on in university in the construction program — what we're seeing is that's a void we're not filling."
Two paths up
Trapa jump-started his career with an internship that revolved around being on-site. Trapa's strength is estimating, and he places high value on upbringing through the industry when he looks for new hires now.
"As a new grad I had different expectations, but what was wonderful for my career development was that I had a fantastic mentor who understood that I needed the field experience," Trapa said. "Then I moved into more of a production tracking individuals where I was working with the foreman and the crew, running small elements of a project. Ultimately I evolved into the estimating division where I was able to put my experience in the field to paper, and from there I transitioned into estimating and project management."
Greenslade, alternately, did come up through the field, skipping college and the internship by learning the skilled trades.
"I grew up on a farm. My dad was a fireman — they tend to build a lot of stuff on the side," Greenslade said. "We built a family cabin and ski slope up in Government Camp. I grew up around building and I had a ski racing habit — I would ski race in the winter and work construction in the summertime. It got to the point I had to turn it into more of a career."
He secured a place in a carpenter's apprenticeship program, and worked from there.
"The industry's changing. I think you are finding more people coming out of the university system," Greenslade said. "But we still need the guys in the field, the carpenters and laborers, the guys who build the buildings."
They know the internship program is a long haul investment, a process that can take three to five years for an intern to become a significantly well-rounded individual.
"I think the kids who graduated from college probably end up in management more so than it used to be: before, you look at most of your older superintendents, they all came up through the field. It's probably a 50-50 mix now," Greenslade said. "There's a real void and the industry is paying the price now. When I grew up around here, we had amazing woodshops, metal shops, architecture — we had the vocational trades in the public schools."
Greenslade attended David Douglas growing up, and they built a house in the skilled trades classes and sold it with the accounting class in 1976. The school made money from it.
"I feel the impact of that not being supported any longer in our public schools," Greenslade said. "Not everybody's made to go to college."
Look for the sequel to this story in the July 14 edition of the Business Tribune to find out which path Bremik's interns and young workers are taking up the career ladder.