Just as construction training organizations were beginning to celebrate a return to in-person training and career events, the increase in COVID-19 infections due to the delta variant is generating another round of uncertainty.Â
However, one thing that is certain is that industry leaders will continue to provide training and education in some form or fashion to ensure the next generation of workers is prepared to fill the labor shortage. Industry leaders also say construction workers must continue to be considered essential workers to keep the state's infrastructure running and support its ongoing economic growth.
Oregon Building Trades (OBT) plans to host its 2021 convention from Sept. 14 to 16, in person, at Central Oregon's Sunriver Resort. The gathering of OBT members who represent a broad array of trades follows 18 months of non-stop work amid pandemic protocols after being designated by Gov. Kate Brown as essential workers.Â Â
"We were fortunate that we were in that essential worker category where we didn't see our industry shut down, so our members had to quickly adjust to the pandemic," said Executive Secretary Robert Camarillo.
He said the construction industry obtained its essential-worker designation because, in addition to building new structures, workers maintain hospitals, long-term care centers, and other healthcare facilities. In addition, they have experience responding to the impacts of natural disasters, such as removing debris from roadways, repairing water lines and restoring electrical power. The industry also plays a crucial role in the state's economic health.
"Had we not advocated to the governor and made our case as to why we should be considered essential….you could have easily seen 100,000 more workers unemployed," Camarillo said, adding the ripple effect to the industry's indirect jobs would have dealt the economy another blow.
Wayne Chow, OBT's political coordinator, said that apprenticeship and other training programs were able to adapt quickly as well, with management and labor working together to implement safety protocols and other pandemic-related policies. Class sizes are still small, but most programs are operating in person again, he said.
Laurie Kendall, president and CEO of the ABC Pacific Northwest Chapter (ABC PNW), said all of its apprenticeship training is going back to in-person classes and training sessions held in its office. ABC PNW is following all county, state and CDC mask requirements and is not suggesting or requiring that students get vaccinated.
The chapter also plans to host its ABC Craft Championships on Oct. 15 in person, and it is adding another trade to the HVAC and Sheet Metal Competition, where sprinkler fitters apprentices will vie for an opportunity to compete on the national stage. In addition, ABC PNW will offer glazier and tile trade demonstrations for the public and high school students to learn more about those trades.Â Â
In spring 2020, ABC PNW moved its apprenticeship training to a completely virtual format as it developed strategies for social distancing when the apprentices did the hands-on portion of their performance evaluation. Other training, such as CPR and first aid, continued in person, albeit with much smaller classes limited to four or six participants spaced at least 6 feet apart. Additionally, mannequins were wiped down frequently, Kendall said.
ABC PNW also had to adjust its curriculum from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), which certifies high school instructors to teach students about construction and maintenance. Before the pandemic, the curriculum was taught through a multiday, in-person format that required instructors from across the state to travel to attend the training. With COVID-19, NCCER agreed to provide the training virtually.
Kendall noted that the virtual NCCER training helped school districts save money because teachers did not have to travel and pay for overnight accommodations. ABC PNW advocated for NCCER to continue the virtual training because it ultimately made the most financial sense.
Other organizations, such as the National Association of Minority Contractors Oregon (NAMC-OR) chapter, plan to continue offering training programs in a purely virtual format in the face of rising infection rates and the return of the mask mandate.
"What we like is that we've been able to make things more convenient because we can meet people where they are, and they don't have to drive across town or feel stressed if they are running late," said Executive Director Nate McCoy.
And, for those who are not available during the live sessions, recorded copies are available. "We're trying to make it as user-friendly and as accessible as possible," he said.
With an "earn while you learn" focus, NAMC-OR customizes its programs for small business owners so they can build capacity and work with larger contractors both through NAMC University's programs and on-the-job training.Â
"This is all with an eye to getting them ready for projects that are on the horizon and an increased understanding, on both sides, of how to do business with each other," McCoy said. "We want to help increase awareness and build relationships so they can be better business people."
Mary Ann Naylor, a spokesperson for Oregon Tradeswomen (OTW), said its eight-week pre-apprenticeship program resumed last fall in much smaller cohorts to accommodate distancing requirements. OTW moved into its new Rockwood digs in January 2020 and cancelled the graduation ceremony set for March 12.
OTW's staff had a fairly steep learning curve about using online tools to carry out its training programs. They developed a hybrid model with students doing about a third of their work online from home, with hands-on workshops in smaller groups for masked and distanced students. Program trainers use transparent shields and masks while delivering in-person instruction.
Â OTW normally would have a graduating class of about 30 students. The fall 2020 graduation included 14.
"There is far more demand than we can address," said Executive Director Kelly Kupcak. "This is distressing for our team here at OTW because we know women have been disparately impacted by the pandemic, suffering economic losses while needing to care for families when school and daycare are limited. That has also impacted our retention services programming and ensuring that the tradeswomen community we serve and students are supported during this critical time."
As Multnomah County implemented another mask mandate Friday, Kupcak noted that OTW is "not in the business of managing or requiring public health and safety guidelines for job seekers, or even our employees. However, we are committed to the health and safety of our staff and program participants, as well as our industry and community partners whom we engage with deeply to support student success."
Iliana Fontal, OTW's director of Programs & Strategic Impact, added that the organization shares information about Multnomah County's free vaccination clinics — leading several participants to get vaccinated when they learned about the events. OTW also requested a donation of PPE and hand sanitizers from the Oregon Health Authority to be used during trainings, and distributes them in the community where it is located.
In the coming months, Naylor said, OTW is looking at adding program components to help more people get into the trades. "Not everyone needs an eight-week training program. Some people just need help navigating how to get into the trades."Â
As an example, OTW is developing an online tool that helps people conduct a self-assessment of what types of trades they might be best suited for based on the skills they already have. "It helps them understand how a lot of the skills they have can be transferrable," she said.
OTW canceled its annual Career Fair in 2020 and did the same this year. Naylor noted that "with so many unknowns and the investment of time and money, we just decided it was for the best." The next Career Fair is scheduled for May 13-14, 2022.
Early on in the pandemic, Oregon Building Trades assembled a COVID Safety Task Force that first met weekly and then bi-weekly to develop best practices about what safety protocols and other measures were working well on job sites. They then shared that information throughout the state, with both union and non-union entities, and responded to national requests for guidance.
"It really opened the eyes on a national platform about how everybody can work together because we are a big part of the economy and we needed to keep working," Chow said.
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