Training the Next Generation of Iron and Steel Workers

May 6, 2017
Training the Next Generation of Iron and Steel Workers

According to 2016 data from Construction Labor Market Analyzer, more than 5.7 million workers will be needed through 2020 in non-residential construction, yet the expected available construction workforce during this period will only be 4.7 million, resulting in a deficit of at least 1 million workers. Recognizing the need to attract and train a new generation of ironworkers, three years ago, the Steel Erectors Association of America (SEAA) embarked on a journey to establish ironworker training and apprenticeship programs across the country. Together with the NCCER, the National Center for Construction Education and Research, SEAA created materials and assessments that provide accredited, industry-recognized skills qualification.

Standardized training, however, doesn’t mean that steel erectors are limited to a cookie-cutter program. Each of the SEAA member companies participating is taking a different approach, molding the program to their individual needs. Some are targeting high school seniors or military veterans, while others are providing skills development to their existing workforce. Most participating companies are erectors, but not all. Others are engaged in fabrication, labor recruitment and employment placement, risk management services, and one is a technical college system that provides assessments only. More than a dozen companies with programs in 12 states are participating.

Meanwhile, SEAA’s accreditations are evolving. In January, SEAA announced that it has completed NCCER endorsement of rigger, signal person, and mobile crane operator certifications and credentials. “These certifications complement SEAA/NCCER Ironworker Craft Training, as many ironworkers must also be qualified to perform rigging, signaling, or crane operation tasks,” said Tim Eldridge, SEAA Craft Training and Assessment Coordinator and President of Education Services Unlimited. The benefit of partnering with NCCER is that SEAA members can tap any of the 70+ craft curricula it offers.

Eldridge admits that traditional apprenticeship is a proven method, but given the skilled labor deficit and shifts in learning styles, he believe craft training must be fast paced, providing independent learning opportunities so that individuals can excel to become productive employees early in their career. “Boot camp style apprenticeship is a popular trend, providing up to a year of classroom training and adequate hours performing critical hands-on activities before stepping on a job site,” he said.

The key to success, however, is providing structured hands-on activities and on the job experience. “Taking time for mastery is an even bigger challenge for a generation that wants to move so fast,” Eldridge adds. “Our current fight to build a skilled workforce must also embrace technology. The built environment becomes more challenging every day. The new craft professional must be just as savvy with technology as with his or her hands. Knowledge-based learning will continue to become more and more convenient as eLearning technology advances.”

SEAA members understand that training is not an overnight solution, but one with long-term benefits for their companies. “We are now able to hire new employees with less experience. In the past, these are people we might not have considered,” said Gerald Bickerstaff, MA, QA/QC Director for Eastern Constructors Inc., Geismar, La. “Utilizing the SEAA/NCCER ironworker training program, we can hire employees who need additional training and teach them the correct way to perform steel erection, allowing them to become more efficient ironworkers, while still creating a safe culture,” he said.

S&R Enterprises, a national structural steel and precast erector based in Pennsylvania, took a similar approach on a recent prevailing wage project in Florida. “We identified as many as eight workers, who were hired as laborers, but had the skill and desire to become ironworkers,” said Josh Collins, PMP, senior project manager for S&R Enterprises. These were workers who saw beyond a temporary setback in hourly rates as an apprentice to the long-term opportunity to become journeyman ironworkers. Those that were interested underwent a skills assessment, then were placed in S&R’s ironworker apprenticeship program, where they received classroom and on-the-job skills based training. S&R used SEAA’s Ironworker Apprenticeship program, which meets U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, guidelines for apprenticeship standards. At the conclusion of the three-year project 50 percent of the apprentices chose to stay on with S&R, many of them working toward Level 2 Ironworker.“SEAA’s training and apprenticeship programs create a pool of documented, qualified ironworkers who can work anywhere. Before that only existed in the union realm,” said Collins.

“Return on investment should be evident in higher productivity, reduction in safety related incidents, and less re-work,” said Eldridge. “I think return on investment is an understatement,” said Jeremy Macliver, Chief Operations Officer, All Things Metal, Phoenix, Ariz. “Without a qualified workforce, your marketing, sales, reputation, and assets cannot do anything.” While the company’s efforts are attracting both novices and journeyman, the single biggest impact on the company’s investment has been the ability to conduct NCCER Knowledge Verification of their current workforce. Giving employees the tools to identify strengths and weaknesses has “encouraged them to attend courses in the areas that they showed opportunity for growth. The results are showing up in improved field performance and in the crew’s confidence,” said Macliver.

Training also has positive returns for the individual worker. “We started the training program in 2014. Since then nine employees have reached the highest level of certification, Industrial Ironworker Certified Plus,” said Josh Bobo, Assistant Operations and QA Manager, CWI, for Cooper Steel, Shelbyville, Tenn.  Six other individuals have achieved Industrial Ironworker. “These individuals have excelled within our company and have been promoted accordingly. The SEAA/NCCER Ironworker Training Program continues to deliver quality results with each successful examination,” he said.

“SEAA has worked hard to put a great program together, but now we need to focus on filling the classroom with students,” said Josh Cilley, who is president of both American Steel & Precast Erectors, Greenfield, N.H., and Buckner Steel Erectors, Graham, N.C. Cilley is the current president of SEAA’s board of directors.

“A grass roots effort by individual members is necessary to partner with local high schools, technical and junior colleges, and military bases,” he said. Among the challenges the industry faces are misperceptions regarding risk and reward. “Although this is a high-risk occupation, the perception that it is dangerous is misguided. Many erectors today have built strong safety cultures. The equipment and methods used today have come a long way in making our industry safer. On the financial side, skilled craft workers make a very good living—as much if not more than recent four-year college graduates,” he added.

In Texas, Adaptive Construction Solutions (ACS) is leading the charge to recruit, train, and employ military veterans. ACS leverages workforce development funding to offset most or all expenses associated with their programs. They have a successful recruiting program that pulls veterans transitioning from active duty as well as those who have not found a career since separating from the Armed Forces. To date ACS’s customers have experienced 87% retention rate at 90 days of employment, and more than 100,000 man hours worked without a recordable injury.

ACS front loads training in an intensive hands-on program that includes the use of a training tower, and pays the apprentice ironworkers as they are learning by tapping military transition funds, grants, and workforce development money. The company is founded and managed by veterans. It partners with employers to develop skilled ironworkers from qualified U.S. military veterans at no cost to the veteran. Veterans are employed, trained, and join companies and crews with other veterans. “We understand that one of the most important factors in successfully re-integrating to civilian life is a steady paycheck,” explains Nick Morgan, founder and president. “In addition, we understand that veterans can fill a critical labor shortage in the steel erection industry.”

The company, which opened its doors in April 2016, had already successfully trained and placed more than 100 veterans on jobs performing steel erection activities by the end of the year. Within six months, the company had achieved U.S. Department of Labor approval of its ironworker apprenticeship program, using the SEAA Ironworker Apprenticeship template. According to Morgan, ACS is the largest merit shop ironworker apprenticeship program in the United States. In 2017, it is looking to hire 400 ironworker apprentices, and expand training locations near military bases in Oklahoma and Colorado in the central region, in the east in Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, and at western locations in Oregon and California.

Garrison Steel Erectors, Inc. in Pell City, Ala., recently offered its first hands-on ironworker training class for high school students, with 22 students from local schools. The class, currently being led by Garrison Owner and CEO John Garrison, is many years in the making.

In Alabama, construction owner and contractor groups began supporting a marketing program called GoBuild Alabama ( in 2009, which has helped to change the image of construction in the minds of young people, and their teachers and parents. Then in 2015, after nearly 20 years of lobbying, the state legislature passed the Alabama Craft Training Act, which collects $1 for every $1000 of construction value on building permits throughout the state. For instance a $60,000,000 project would generate $60,000 for construction workforce development.

Funds will be managed by the Alabama Craft Training Board, which will award grants to qualified training programs. “It is anticipated that as much as $3-5 million per year will be available for distribution to junior colleges and other public and private training programs,” said Garrison. Collections began in October 2016; funding will be used for craft training, which is for non-working students; apprenticeship training, which is for incumbent workers wanting to upgrade skills; and task training, which includes one-time short term training for special purposes.

Garrison says five things are needed to make construction craft training a success in Alabama: 1) curriculum, 2) venue, 3) teachers and trainers, 4) money, and 5) students. Garrison said: “The missing pieces are passionate, qualified teachers with the right experience.” He’s hopeful funding will attract good, competent craft instructors. “Many of these students are disengaged. If we don’t get the right trainers, we’re going to lose them,” said Garrison.

While the state’s mandate is for any construction craft, Garrison is focusing on ironworkers using the SEAA/NCCER program. (Garrison is not using any of the Alabama funds yet; rather he is tapping Federal Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act funds.) Upon completion of the Introduction to Ironworking course, the 22 high school seniors in his class will have achieved Level 1 Ironworker credentials. So what’s the next step? “We are willing to take as many as we can on as apprentice employees, and take over their training for Level 2 and Level 3 ironworker. For the ones we can’t hire, we hope to find them jobs at other area erectors,” said Garrison. His attitude on investing in these young people is this: “A rising tide raises all boats.”

The first eight weeks of the program is theoretical, taking place in the classroom. The remainder is practical. Portions of that take place in a hands-on workshop Garrison recently opened as well as on job sites. Practical learning includes welding, oxy fuel cutting, rigging, and crane familiarity.

In their own words, several of these students commented on the experience.

“When I first started I didn’t think steel erection had that many procedures and rules to follow,” said Skyler West of Pell City High School, who added that he learned more about rigging than he expected to know. Meanwhile, Logan Castleberry, also of Pell City H.S., was surprised how many different aspects there are to being an ironworker.

“Honestly, I had no clue what steel erection was. I thought it was like blacksmith work,” said Jacob Acton, Pell City H.S. “Now I know that it is [everything from] making steel to fabricating it, and hanging, bolting, and welding.”

Asked what he would tell other students considering a career in construction, Daniel Crane of Pell City H.S., said: “They are going to have to work hard but if they are willing to put in the hours, they could have a secure and well-paying career to last a lifetime.”

“This is a wonderful trade to get into. They need many, many workers and it’s still growing. You can travel and build new things,” said Alhjandre Smith, Talladega High School.

“This high school program is a first step in introducing a new generation about the rewarding and financially viable careers to be found in construction,” said Garrison. “Next is creating distance learning to reach incumbent workers seeking to upgrade their skills,” he added.

Tracy Bennett is owner of Mighty Mo Media Partners, a content marketing firm specializing in the construction industry. She has more than 25 years of experience covering the construction market, first as a journalist and later as a marketing consultant. A version of this article originally appeared in Connector, a quarterly publication of the Steel Erectors Association of America, and is reprinted with permission.

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