VOL. 11 | NO. 18 | Saturday, May 5, 2018
EMPHASIS: Commercial Real Estate
Turner Career Program Seeks To Boost Construction Manpower
By C. RICHARD COTTON
Chris Boyce is a happy man. The South Memphis resident is gainfully employed in a trade he never envisioned while he worked for years performing railroad maintenance around the area.
Boyce, 61, is on his way to becoming a full-fledged electrician, employed since early this year by Gephart Electric Co., a Minnesota-based firm that maintains a Memphis regional office in Robinsonville, Mississippi. He currently is working on the expansion of University Methodist Hospital; Boyce expects to be there through completion of the project in December or January.
“I am very happy,” he said.
What elates him is an opportunity presented late last year. Boyce had enough foresight to realize that the Career Awareness Program, an idea hatched by Andy Davis, business manager for Turner Construction Co., was something worth pursuing. New York-based Turner is an international construction contracting firm with a substantial presence in Memphis.
“We first started having job fairs,” Davis said.
With the Methodist undertaking and other “big projects” looming on the horizon, Davis realized there could also be a looming manpower shortage to fill positions on the projects.
He also realized there were higher-than-average unemployment rates and lower-than-average wages in at least two Memphis ZIP code areas: 38106 and 38126, which comprise much of South Memphis. The unemployment rate in Memphis is 3.7 percent, as reported in December 2017, while it is 6.3 percent in 38106 and 38126. Davis figured there were potential construction employees in those areas.
Davis’ focus was, and still is, on helping his subcontractors fill positions for ongoing and upcoming projects: “How can we help them?” he asked himself. “The work has to get done and we are trying to find a way.”
For the job fairs, anywhere from 75 to 125 potential applicants showed up. It became apparent there was a lack of experience in the construction trades.
That was Version 1 of the Career Awareness Program. Version 2 was what swept Boyce into the undertaking. Davis, with the assistance of Advance Memphis and the Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, developed an introductory class for people interested in a construction trade.
Participants met Monday through Thursday nights from November to December, a total of four weeks. Various subcontractors were recruited to provide hands-on demonstrations of what the trades entailed; included in the presentations were carpentry, electrical, flooring, concrete, sheet metal and masonry, along with “soft skills,” such as instruction in basic math and how to be a good employee. Participants were promised a job interview upon successful completion of the program.
While Davis is pleased with the first effort, he admitted it wasn’t as successful as he had envisioned it.
“We wanted 20 to 25 participants,” he said. “It was hard filling up the classroom.”
The class ended up with 10 participants. In the end, two of them landed construction jobs in the fields that interested them. (One of the hires has been out recently with an off-the-job injury; the other is Boyce.)
John Churchill, vice president of business services at GMACW, and Steve Nash, executive director of Advance Memphis, both fell short in the number of folks they anticipated being able to recruit for the program. The Workforce Investment Network center was only able to recruit two participants of an anticipated 20.
“We really appreciated the opportunity to help pilot this,” Nash said. “We are interested in it (in the future) if it is involved with adults in the (38106 and 38126) ZIP codes.”
Boyce, for his part, said he has even tried recruiting participants: “I’m talking the advantage of it, but I can’t worry about them. I talk to a lot of people but it’s like talking to a wall.”
Davis said Version 3 is already underway, with a focus on younger recruits. Through the Shelby County Schools’ Department of Career and Technical Education, CAP is providing Thursday classes that basically mirror the introductory efforts from Version 2.
“It focuses on high school,” Davis said. “We get them started early.” He anticipates holding another CAP session for adults, possibly in the fall. He reiterated that Memphis is going to have “great opportunities” in the construction fields in the future.
Boyce is well aware of that fact. He counts his participation in the program as a blessing.
“All I had to do was show up to class on time, take notes and listen,” he said. “(Turner) was true to their word. I got the interview and the next thing I knew, I got a phone call.
“It’s one of the best moves I ever made. It’s the thing to do. I didn’t get into it to not finish it.”