Story by Carl Molesworth | September 28, 2010

The irony is inescapable. While the construction industry looks ahead and sees the already tight supply of skilled workers likely getting tighter as baby boomers retire, new people who could fill the ranks are having trouble getting started.

The situation is particularly volatile in places like Portland, where the demand for construction services is growing while the supply of workers is shrinking. But that could be changing.

"We've got huge issues here," said Jim Trapp, executive director of Construction Apprenticeship & Workforce Solutions Inc., a new organization formed with a mission to increase the representation of people of color and women in the construction trades in the Portland metropolitan area. CAWS grew out of an innovative training-to-employment program called Evening Trades Apprenticeship Preparation, which was created by the Housing Authority of Portland to help low-income public housing residents find jobs in the construction trades.

Trapp cited studies showing that between projected retirements and projected construction projects, Oregon will need 19,000 new construction workers by 2014.

"That's the gap," Trapp said, and it's only seven years away.

The stakeholders in CAWS — major public and private developers, general contractors, trade unions, apprenticeship training organizations, and community-based organizations — have chosen to see that gap as an opportunity. By creating opportunities for people of color and women to embark on construction careers, CAWS will be helping to fill the labor gap while also diversifying the construction work force.

Recent history has shown this isn't an easy task. A statement in the CAWS literature describes the situation this way:

"Unfortunately, the construction trades remain an industry that is viewed by minorities and women as unlikely to meet the promise of a satisfying career. These potential workers either do not enter the trades or wash out in a few years based on this perception. This is true despite recent, strong and yet uncoordinated efforts by various entities to dramatically increase the representation of minorities and women working in the trades. The truth is diversity work force strategies to date have not worked."

CAWS is taking a new approach by creating a comprehensive regional work force strategy, developed by a broad range of stakeholders committed to the organization's success.

"Everybody is around the table," Trapp said. "There's not a quick fix to this, but communication is the nature of the construction business. We want to make sure communities of color get the message that the trades are a viable career option."

As an umbrella organization, CAWS stresses advocacy more than operation of specific programs. According to the CAWS literature, the organization will "develop the capacity of existing community groups and will link educational efforts among community college, high school and alternative schools, comprehensively market the construction trades to minorities and women, and help the stakeholders examine the un-examined habits of thinking that may contribute to the negative perception held by minorities and women about the trades."

The key, Trapp said, is getting young people into apprenticeship programs with a reasonable chance of succeeding and going on to productive, rewarding construction careers.

"We are using pre-apprenticeships to give people a leg up, so when they hit the deck as a Level 1 apprentice they aren't coming into it green," Trapp explained. Though still in its infancy, CAWS helped 52 people get into apprenticeship programs last year, he added.

Currently with 38 member organizations, CAWS is unique on the West Coast, if not the nation, in its approach to diversifying the construction work force, Trapp said. In the future, he can foresee the creation of a West Coast coalition of similar organizations to tackle the issue.

For more information about CAWS, contact Executive Director Jim Trapp at jimtrapp@caws-pdx.org or visit online at www.caws-pdx.org.