March 19, 2009 By Adam Stone
Following the storm, Gulf Coast builders and civic authorities found themselves in the hole. Even before the hurricane, the local building trades were shorthanded. Now, with post-Katrina rebuilding work to do, there were nowhere near enough hands to go around. Entire neighborhoods languished.
"We wound up hiring people who weren't trained, who certainly would not earn as much money, who would not be as productive or efficient," said Fred McManus, vice president of The Shaw Group Inc., a Baton Rouge, La., engineering and construction company.
Things have changed for McManus, whose 27,000-person firm has been able to bring in more than 3,000 trained workers in recent months. The windfall of personnel came thanks to the Gulf Coast Workforce Development Initiative (GCWDI), a public-private partnership that has trained more than 20,000 workers in various construction skills.
The effort has helped fill the labor gap, making it possible to rebuild and renew the region.
GCWDI had its genesis in a 2005 meeting of the Business Roundtable, a captains-of-industry conclave of about 160 CEOs working for major organizations. The group conceived a program to be led by the Bechtel Corp. and DuPont that would work to fill the labor gap.
Members agreed to pitch in $5 million in cash and in-kind services, as a monetary foundation to attract $25 million in public support. The U.S. Department of Labor added $5 million to the pot through its Pathways to Construction Employment Initiative. Louisiana added $15 million more. National emergency grants, community block grants and other sources also supported the effort.
Planners conceived a three-pronged approach for the initiative, which formally launched in spring 2006: recruitment into construction careers, training and job placement.
Promotion came through the GCWDI Web site, www.imgreat.org, and paid advertising. Local community colleges formed the backbone of the training component. Contractors, homebuilders, trade groups and others stepped up with job-placement initiatives.
Planners and educators worked closely with those companies that would be hiring. "We wanted to let them know what our class schedules are, when students would become available and how to find them," said Tim Horst, GCWDI program manager. Job fairs give recent graduates the chance to interact directly with employers.
Training began in mid-2006 and continues throughout the region, with programs in Mississippi, Texas, Alabama and Louisiana.
In addition to its government sponsors, GCWDI has drawn support from the community.
Trade associations have played a role, for example, through The Roofing Industry Alliance for Progress, which donated $25,000 to the effort. The National Roofing Contractors Association also donated resources to produce a recruitment video and worked with GCWDI to include a roofing component in the program's curriculum.
The education community stepped up with extensive training programs. Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, for instance, offers a range of four-week courses based on the National Center for Construction Education and Research curriculum.
The Mississippi Construction Education Foundation also played a role. "They were at the table with us from the very beginning, helping us develop those programs and identify the shortages of workers in the entire construction industry," said Anna Faye Kelley-Winders, vice president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. "You must have partners at the table who are aware of those regional and national trends."
The short-course format, produced outside a college's usual for-credit track, allows for innovation. "[It] has made a great deal of difference because it allows us to try new things, to change formats, to respond to a