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CT Construction Digest Thursday October 28, 2021

Construction's career crisis: Can the industry attract millennials and Gen Z?

Ryan Golden

Construction employment carries with it a perception that the work does not pay well or is more likely to be affected by an economic downturn than other fields.

These fears are not entirely unfounded, said Priya Kapila, compensation practice leader at FMI Corp., a consulting and investment banking firm that works with clients in construction, engineering and similar sectors. Historically, contractors sought to control costs in part by leaning on lower base salaries, particularly for entry-level positions, and making up for it with bonuses, she said.

Layoffs that occurred in tandem with downturns such as the mid-2000s recession further the narrative. "There's an inherent challenge of business cycles," Kapila said. "Even today, we've seen people exit the industry who are less inclined to come back."

That does not play well with a generation of workers who are looking for economic stability, she added. But Kapila noted that construction's reputation as a low-paying industry is not entirely deserved. Particularly for construction management graduates, FMI's research has shown the industry offers competitive pay compared to other sectors. And with a competitive talent market that has led companies across industries to increase wages, "you can't get away with low pay," Kapila said.

Other sources echoed that thought. "If you're a drywall contractor and looking for people, drywall finishing is a skill … you can't just take someone from off the street," said Brent MacDonald, an instructor in construction management at Indiana State. "You have to train them to be a drywall finisher and pay them accordingly. And now that we have this competitive talent market, you can no longer pay someone $13 an hour."

Figuring flexibility out

It is not just about pay, however. During the pandemic, many companies adjusted operations to accommodate more flexible ways of working, including fully-remote and hybrid work. The in-person nature of construction work, at odds with home-based work, may have a mixed impact on recruiting efforts.

"People are re-evaluating their inputs or qualities for quality of life," said Paul Crovella, an assistant professor at the State University of New York's College of Environment Science and Forestry who specialises in sustainable construction. Crovella noted that while the pandemic may not have reduced overall interest in construction industry careers, it also may have led to a desire for a way of working that places less emphasis on in-person elements. Some students see the prospect of spending time on job sites as a positive. "For those individuals, it's akin to leaving your office and being able to work across the factory floor."

Flexibility is "still something that the industry is trying to figure out," Kapila said. But the incentive to pursue it is there for employers, she added, particularly because employees in their early 20s may place less value on retirement benefits, profit sharing and other areas that contractors have traditionally advertised to candidates. "You have to really give thought to the total package when you're approaching candidates and think about which components might matter most."

Even before the pandemic, construction industry analysts acknowledged that conflict in expectations between younger workers and the job sites that sought their labor. In a 2016 report by Marcum LLP, researchers Anirban Basu and Joseph Natarelli wrote that millennial employees as a group demonstrated a preference for jobs with flexible work hours. But that expectation "isn't consistent with the bulk of construction activity," the authors said.

At Cincinnati-based Messer, remote work implies a cultural question. "How are we any different from the folks building the buildings?," said Nick Apanius, the company's senior vice president in charge of HR and professional development operations, adding that even the company's employees who could work mostly from home have demonstrated a desire to be with their teams in-person and see job sites for themselves. "We think people need to be in the office, and I know that's a challenge."

But Messer has implemented flexible work guidelines over the years, even for those who perform in-person operations, he added. That can be particularly important during the pandemic, when workers need to take care of elderly parents, children or other dependents.

Appealing to Gen Z, millennial values

The challenge of marketing construction to young workers may seem daunting at first glance, experts say.

"If you put a hammer in their hands before an iPhone, you might have a chance," quipped Donald "Bo" McNabb, senior instructor in construction management at Indiana State University's College of Technology, when asked how contractors could drum up more interest in the field. "That's what they're competing with."

A number of sources suggested that employers need to appeal to potential workers earlier in their lives. Casey Welch, CEO of Tallo, an employment and scholarship platform geared toward younger workers, noted that this process can start well before students graduate from high school. "The best place to get that talent is to start to build it," he said. "If you want to get them, get to them early and get to them often."

External groups can play a part in those efforts. MacDonald talked about one initiative supported in part by the Wabash Valley Contractors Association, a local trade group, to implement an exhibit this past summer at a local children's museum. The exhibit allows visiting kids to explore hands-on activities such as drawing, welding and assembling.

Such initiatives could encourage the next generation of workers to "drop the phone and pick up something real," to borrow MacDonald's phrasing, but not all outreach is guaranteed to be successful. He relayed his experience presenting to students at a local middle school. MacDonald said he tried but perhaps failed to help students connect their everyday experiences to construction.

A robust recruitment toolbelt

For more recent graduates or even those already in the workforce, construction work carries an entrepreneurial element that could have its own appeal, according to Welch. That some who enter the industry end up opening their own businesses may offer something to financially prudent younger workers that other career paths may not, he said.

Other sources supported this idea. Younger workers have "grown up in a period of debt crisis," Basu, chief economist for Associated Builders and Contractors told Construction Dive, leading to concerns that college alone will not guarantee them a prosperous future. That could breed interest in the possibilities that fields like construction can provide.

"For instance, many electricians start their own firms, same thing with plumbers and roofers, so on and so forth," Basu said. "And they might find that appealing as well. So there's hope out there, but there has to be a coherent sustained effort by the industry to reach out to these prospective demographics."

The pandemic presents "a terrifying climate to start your adult life and professional life in," said Isabel Perez, a recruiter at Messer. “Younger workers, she added, "want to work for a company that makes them feel like part of the team, that helps them grow."

Perez, who said she is still early in her career and did not originally consider a job in the construction industry while in college, believes that the worker-owned structure of Messer played a big role in her decision to join the company. "We all have a stake in the game, [and] everyone is here to lift each other up, to help you grow," she continued. "I knew that was where I wanted to go. That was the most important thing to me."

Technology also can be a tool in recruiters' utility belts. Apanius noted the influx of investment in construction technologies, particularly into artificial intelligence systems that allow engineers to plan projects virtually before they head out into the field. "How we build buildings now is very different from 20 years ago," he said.

Construction employers may look to how other industries dealing with similar shortages have changed their recruiting strategies. Welch touted Tallo's work with the trucking industry to implement gamification into recruiting applications. He has also seen trucking companies highlight immersive technologies, such as virtual reality, that can give prospective candidates a better idea of the work they would need to perform.

Crovella had a similar thought. Contractors, he said, "have the chance to use some of the same immersive technology that has fascinated this generation in other areas." He noted a plethora of examples of companies using VR to simulate welding and other critical skills.

A few sources noted that while these and other strategies may not always land, construction work has advantages that few other industries can boast.

"What we do isn't for everybody," Apanius said. "But at the end of the day, you can look behind you and look at what you created from nothing."

Tangibility. That's another passion driving industry veterans.

"You want to be able to drive by something and say, 'I had a hand in building that,'" MacDonald said. "You can't do that as an accountant working on budgets."

Up to $1.9M in federal rescue funds could go to Meriden library project

Michael Gagne

MERIDEN — Efforts to renovate the Meriden Public Library’s nearly 50-year-old building on Miller Street received a boost this week.

That boost began on Monday night, when the Meriden American Rescue Plan Steering Committee voted unanimously to recommend the library’s application for use of between $1.665 million to $1.9 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to replace the library’s aging heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system.

The final funding amount, which still needs to be voted on by the City Council, will be based on which library improvement project the council ultimately backs.

On Tuesday night, the council’s finance committee, by a 3 to 2 margin, voted to recommend the council as a whole support funding the expansion project. 

Finance committee Chairwoman Yvette Cortez, Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona and Councilor Nicole Tomassetti, voted in favor of expansion. Councilors Dan Brunet and Michael Carabetta voted against expansion, saying they instead supported a base renovation. 

Two years ago, the council had approved the library’s plan to renovate the 45,000-square-foot building without expanding. The library building committee on Tuesday night presented plans for expanding and renovating the library to finance committee members during a remote videoconferenced meeting. The library’s architect during that presentation also showed finance committee members plans for a base renovation without expansion. 

According to funding figures shared Tuesday night, the total project cost for renovating the library would be just under $10.25 million. The net cost of the project to the city would be lowered to around $7.43 million, after a $1 million state library grant, $150,000 in funds raised by the Friends of the Meriden Public Library, and the potential $1.665 million in ARP funds are factored in. The cost of that project has increased since the council last voted to authorize funding for it. The council in 2019 authorized $6.8 million in bond funding for the renovation and would need to authorize at least $634,076 more, based on figures shared with the finance committee. 

Meanwhile, the Library Building Committee and the architect who drafted the renovation and expansion plans, have put forth the expansion proposal, which would increase the building’s existing space: adding more than 3,200 square feet in public space throughout the building and nearly doubling the building’s meeting room space. Currently the building has 2,570 square feet in meeting area space.

The plans would increase that space to 4,994 square feet. 

The total cost of renovation and expansion would be just over $13 million. After grants, private fund raising, and the $1.9 million in ARP funds, the city’s expense would be close to $9.97 million. After deducting the $6.8 million the council previously committed toward the project, the council would need to authorize committing another $3.167 million to fully fund that project. 

‘Once in a generation’

Prior to the finance committee and the ARP committee’s votes, Thomas Welsh, who chairs the Library Building Committee, described a tight timeline: the committee must have a construction contract in place by January 2022 or risk losing the $1 million State Library Grant. 

Welsh also noted the cost of the project had increased over original estimates because of the pandemic’s impact on the supply chain, including construction. The costs also include $200,000 in code compliance to cover the installation of a new sprinkler system, which wasn’t required when the library was originally constructed, Welsh explained. 

Welsh said the library not only serves the entire community of Meriden, but is located downtown, an area with a large concentration of low income residents. 

“Those would be the folks most impacted if we are not able to do this renovation process,” Welsh said, describing the proposal as “a once in a generation project.”

Carabetta said he does see the need for a renovation. However, he was against expanding the library. 

Brunet agreed, saying it’s not true that there is no additional library and meeting space available. He said expanding the library would come with additional overhead, including maintenance, heating and electrical costs. 

Tomassetti and Cardona disagreed. 

“I think it would be a mistake to not develop the building to its fullest extent,” Tomassetti said. 

“I think the space could really benefit the public,” Cardona said, adding he believes the city needs more meeting space.

Mayor Kevin Scarpati, who voted in favor of allocating ARP funding during the steering committee’s deliberations, reiterated the sentiment that the proposal is “a once in a generation project.” He urged council members to consider the library’s future use.

“... I urge the council to consider what this means to not just library users today, but students, schools, businesses, nonprofits and hopefully us who will take advantage of the library in the future,” Scarpati said. 

Cheshire Academy will reduce tuition costs, improve campus

Mariah Melendez,

CHESHIRE — Cheshire Academy, one of the oldest independent boarding schools in the country, recently announced it will be making changes to tuition cost and its campus in the coming months. 

For Head of School Julie Anderson, the change is about equity and responding to the hardships of families in the area. 

“We understand that, when families look at schools to send their children to, the price of Cheshire Academy can cause a family to overlook the school for their children,” she said. “We spent a lot of time discussing this with our peer schools, financial advisors, alumni and board of trustees and we decided that we would take this leap of faith in lowering our fee structure.”

For the 2022-2023 school year, Cheshire Academy will reduce by a third its traditional tuition for day students — from $42,320 to $29,850. Seven-day boarding tuition will also be reduced by 10%, from $63,600 to $57,250.

“We really took into consideration what would be more reasonable for families in our area here, and we still will offer financial aid and need-based aid to those who qualify for it,” Anderson said. “This really feels like we are doing the right thing.”

According to Anderson, the changes are designed to make Cheshire Academy more appealing to families in Cheshire and around the world who are struggling financially. 

“We understand that COVID-19 took a toll on all of us, and COVID-19 really made us rethink our priorities, which is why we are also changing a number of things on campus as well,” Anderson said.

In addition to the fee-structure change, Cheshire Academy is also going to be adding a variety of new campus additions to help ensure that sports and other activities are equitable. 

“We are planning on installing a new turf field and improving the one we currently have, so we will have two turf fields available for use by our sports teams,” Anderson said. 

Currently, Cheshire Academy only has one field, making it difficult for both men and women’s teams to practice or schedule games. 

“We really wanted better equity for our teams,” Anderson said. “This will allow for better access to the fields, which really reflects the college model we are trying to replicate.”

In addition to the new turf field, Cheshire Academy also has plans for three new tennis courts and the construction of a new $25- to $30-million field house and theater complex.

In order to make these new improvements happen, Anderson said Cheshire Academy will be utilizing funds received from their alumni and Board of Trustees. 

“We received a bequest and a substantial endowment from two individuals who we are incredibly grateful for, but we are not going public with their names at this time,” she added. 

Bozrah rejects data center because of project questions

Mary Elizabeth Lang

The Bozrah Planning and Zoning Commission held a public hearing at Fields Memorial School on Tuesday, Oct. 12, to get feedback from residents regarding a proposed zoning change. The change, requested by GotSpace Data Partners LLC of Boston, Mass., would establish a new zoning category, the Technology Park District (TPD).

GotSpace had approached the town more than a year ago with the idea of building a series of data centers in a 40-acre parcel located in a wooded area behind properties on Bozrah Street (Route 163) and Houghton Road.

Planning and Zoning Chair Stephen Seder opened the meeting to comments and questions at 7 p.m. Also present were Planning and Zoning Commission members Scott Barber, Manuel Misarski, Stephen Coit and Nancy Taylor, as well as two members of the Board of Selectmen, Glenn Pianka and William Ballinger. Residents of Bozrah, including owners of property near the site of the proposed data center, raised several concerns, not the least of which was the fact that the owners and representatives of GotSpace were noticeably absent. The reason given for the no-show was that the company is undergoing a change in leadership, which raised more questions regarding the stability of the company and its ability to complete the project and follow through with any agreements it might make with the town.

Other concerns included disruption of the rural nature of this portion of Bozrah. Adjacent properties include several private homes, a church and the town-owned Maples Farm Park and Homestead, with its restored historic farm house, hiking and riding trails, picnic tables and a large field currently used as a soccer pitch. The park, which is near the senior center, a playground and a Little League field, is also the site of Bozrah’s well-known Farmers Market. In a sense, Maples Farm Park has become the town green for the community and has been the site of community harvest pot-luck picnics, weddings and other public and private events.

Residents spoke about the need for a closer look at similar data centers built by GotSpace to determine any impact on the community of the construction and daily operation of a 24-7 business. Would traffic patterns be affected? What about excessive noise levels from construction and the ongoing operation of generators? Would the buildings and parking lot create light pollution?

Others were concerned that GotSpace had apparently decided that their needs for electric power far exceeded the capabilities of our local power company, Bozrah Light and Power, so they had applied to Eversource to bring in the power that they needed.

The Planning and Zoning Commission and two representatives from the Board of Selectman were able to answer some of the public’s questions, but it appeared after less than an hour of discussion that although Bozrah residents might be amenable to the idea of a technology park in the future, they were not satisfied with the proposed zoning change nor with the lack of information and data forthcoming from the company that had applied for it.

When the hearing ended, the Planning and Zoning Commission voted to reject the proposal from GotSpace without prejudice, which they explained would allow for a future proposal either from that development company or some other entity who would be willing to meet with the community and satisfy their concerns.