Construction industry takes online approach to look for new hires

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After years in the doldrums, the region’s highway construction industry is rebounding to the point where a trade organization is actively recruiting prospective workers with online “virtual apprenticeships.”

The Constructors Association of Western Pennsylvania “identified a principal threat to the industry: a future skilled construction workforce shortage,” said Rich Barcaskey, executive director of the association, which represents more than 200 companies in 33 counties.

Visitors to the Future Road Builders website fill out a questionnaire that assesses whether construction would be a viable job choice for them. (The questions include whether one likes to work outdoors, is afraid of heights, is bothered by heat or snow and is willing to travel 50 miles to get to work.)

The visitors then see a mock highway project as it unfolds through the many stages of construction, starting with clearing of a job site and installment of runoff controls. The goal is to earn 4,000 hours of virtual apprentice time in a matter of minutes, to help one decide whether to seek a union apprenticeship as an operating engineer, carpenter, laborer, teamster, cement mason or pile driver.

The site can be viewed at under the “career center” tab.

Act 89, the transportation funding measure that the Legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett approved last year, provided a large boost to the statewide highway construction industry, which was in decline since the end of the federal stimulus program in 2011.

A study that the trade organization Associated Pennsylvania Constructors commissioned concluded that the legislation saved 12,000 jobs and will create 50,000 jobs, including 20,000 to 25,000 in the highway construction industry, said executive vice president Robert Latham.

In a survey of contractors, 84 percent said they expected to hire more blue-collar workers. Sixty percent reported cutting their workforces before Act 89.

“There will be a need for more people in the industry, no doubt about it,” Mr. Latham said.

“What we saw in the last several years was an industry in decline,” which caused skilled construction workers to migrate to the gas drilling industry or leave the state.

According to the Pennsylvania Highway Information Association, the new revenue from Act 89 has already begun to find its way to contractors. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had bid $959 million in projects through the end of May, compared with $576 million the year before, it said.

Mr. Barcaskey said industry officials began to consider the online program before the passage of Act 89 because of demographics in the construction sector, where the average worker is 47 years old. The association wanted a dynamic recruitment tool that could capture the attention of younger people.

“We said, ‘Let’s not wait till we get to the crisis to solve it.’ We wanted to be ahead of the curve,” he said.

The construction industry “offers well-paying jobs and opportunities for advancement, but many misunderstand it as being unskilled and a dead-end career choice,” Mr. Barcaskey said.

Jon Schmitz: or 412-263-1868. Twitter: @pgtraffic.

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