One of the construction industry's greatest and most-discussed current challenges is how to recruit, train and continually develop a skilled, productive workforce.
The Wisconsin Laborers' union has quietly been doing something about it since the late 1970s, and has really stepped up its facilities and programs over the past several years.
The union currently operates the Laborers' Apprenticeship and Training Center just north of Madison, Wis., under the direction of Al Friedl, director of apprenticeship and training.
Just four years old, the center is a 50,000-square-foot facility designed specifically for teaching key skills related to the laborer craft.
The broad range of courses taught there includes all the important subjects related to the work done by union laborers in the world of construction.
There are currently 35 classes, ranging from a general introduction to the construction industry, to blueprint reading, concrete-construction skills, welding, pipe laying, scaffold erection, grade and highway checking, small gas-engine maintenance, forklift operation, mason tending, and foreman preparedness.
Although safety is emphasized in all the classes, the curriculum also includes courses focused specifically on safety topics like CPR, first aid, flagging, traffic control, OSHA safety, and confined-space work.
The center even offers training for laborers working in specialties like asbestos abatement and hazardous-waste handling.
In addition to teaching at the center, the training staff teaches courses on location for union contractors who contribute to the training fund and for laborer union locals who request it.
Laborers' District Council President and Business Manager Tom Fisher says, "We know our success depends on our contractors' success. We also know that to be successful we have to work cooperatively with contractors to solve problems and meet their workforce and training needs. We believe our training programs and this facility demonstrate our commitment to our employer partners and our continued success in the industry."
The training center and its programs are open to any member of the construction laborers' union who is in good standing and who works for a contractor that contributes to the union's training fund.
About 1,400 students attend classes at the training center each year. The busiest season starts approximately in November and runs through March, as many workers choose to expand or improve their skills while on winter layoffs.
Wisconsin Laborers' District Council Assistant Business Manager Patrick Ervin says, "We are seeing not only apprentices, but more journeymen coming in to either upgrade or expand their skills. They are realizing that having a broader range of skills and a higher level of proficiency makes them more valuable to employers."
Added head instructor Craig Ziegler, "Many want to learn about the newest advances and technology, like electronic grading and staking. Others want to complete some of the requirements for their apprenticeships."
The requirements for completing a laborer apprenticeship and moving up to journeyman include 400 hours of education and 4,000 hours of work experience. The training center has a coordinator who can help apprentices select the right combination of courses that meet their apprenticeship education needs and personal interests.
Applications are taken on a first-come, first-served basis. Applicants are asked to list three desired classes so that if their first choice is filled, the center can meet their immediate need with an alternate course. They can then re-apply later to take the first-choice class.
Because the training center is supported by contractors who contribute to the training center, along with contributions from the laborers' union, no student is charged for the courses he or she takes.
In addition, students who live more than 50 miles from the center are housed at a hotel, in rooms paid for by the training center. Students who live less than 50 miles away commute from home but receive a daily travel allowance.
The training center was designed and constructed for educating construction laborers. It contains classrooms, multipurpose rooms, and three 50-by-80-foot training bays ideally suited to teaching construction skills.
One bay is dedicated to pipe-laying training. The second is set up for teaching grade checking and general construction education. And the third is used for teaching concrete work, forklift operation and scaffold erection.
All three bays have no concrete floor, enabling teachers to simulate construction-site conditions and to permit excavating.
For example, says Ziegler, in the pipe-laying bay, the teachers will often bury simulated gas or water lines for students to locate and work around, just as they would have to in the real world.
The experts who teach the courses are experienced journeymen, foremen or superintendents who have extensive field experience, and who in many cases are still working at the craft.
Because the bulk of the training takes place during the winter, when construction work is slow, the teachers are also readily available. Using teachers who are still actively working in construction enables them to pass on their practical on-the-job wisdom to a new generation of laborers.
As important as the quality of the facility and the teachers, according to Ziegler, is the atmosphere at the training center.
"Although our standards for passing courses are high, we emphasize to students that they are only being judged on the progress they've made themselves, not against the skill level of anyone else in the class," he says. "Our goal is to help each student have the knowledge and skill to help his or her employer succeed on their jobs."