Educating to Employ: Public Works Programs Help to Close Gaps

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By Mike Russin

The jobs report may show the unemployment rate at a rare low, but one industry has been struggling to hire for several years now. Municipalities are facing a workforce gap as Baby Boomers continue to enter retirement — and the jobs available are struggling to draw a younger crowd.

The paradox here is that public works programs were created to fix unemployment — not suffer from it. In the throes of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (renamed the Works Projects Administration in 1939) was established to create jobs, particularly in infrastructure. There were even smaller programs designed to employ younger demographics, like the National Youth Administration. Nowadays, the need for public works remains, but younger workers are turning to jobs in other industries.

Millennials are setting different trends in career trajectories. Many are focused on having more flexible work schedules, and they are eager to find positions with growth potential. For these young workers, the tech/software, health and financial industries are the top fields in which they are seeking employment. The retail, government, media and not-for-profit sectors are suffering as a result.

A Growing Problem

So, how can municipalities close their growing unemployment gaps? A new era of public works programs could be the solution.

Proactive efforts to hire new entrants are the first step. Outreach programs at local high schools and community colleges, employer presence at networking and hiring events for younger crowds, and media coverage all help to get the word out about available opportunities. But because public works projects generally require highly-skilled labor to get the job done, they may still face hiring challenges.

To help close the skills gap, municipalities across the United States are developing training programs to create employment opportunities for local residents. These training programs equip students with in-demand skills, and give them the opportunity to get involved in the field so that they can transition into full-time work as graduates, creating a win-win for the community.

Training Programs

In Washington, D.C., the DC Infrastructure Academy (DCIA) is helping to fill the nearly 1,000 infrastructure-related jobs left open in the city last year. DCIA brings multiple workforce development programs together, along with utility company, union and university partners. Participants receive skills training for jobs in transportation, energy, IT infrastructure and the like, and the program is particularly focused on serving underemployed and unemployed residents.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, municipalities have partnered with the local community college to create the Public Works Academy. For a $25 registration fee, participants receive seven weeks of training for a variety of positions. At the end of the program, they’ll interview with two community partners for seasonal work or an internship at public works facilities in the state.

Mike Russin

Mike Russin

In San Francisco, public works has two programs to introduce college students and recent graduates into the field. Its internship program allows college students to work over the summer and grow in areas such as technology, engineering and project management to gain hands-on experience and network. It gives students a smooth transition into the field after graduation. Its apprenticeship program is a partnership with the Department of Human Resources and local unions. It allows those entering the workforce or changing careers to work in various fields, such as environmental service work and labor. The program provides training and the mentorship of public works employees and allows the apprentices the opportunity to transition into a full-time position afterwards.

Southern California also has colleges with public works certification programs. Schools such as Citrus College in Los Angeles County offer a certificate that prepares students for positions in the public and private sectors of public works. These certification programs require fewer credits than a full bachelor’s or associate’s degree, allowing interested applicants to complete the coursework without adding financial debt.

Employees now are focused on job growth and development. Many municipalities have been successful in creating a clear path to development for growth-oriented new hires. Employees want to work for municipalities that cross-train them and help them get industry certification such as PACP/LACP/MACP to make them more employable. Public works departments looking to hire and retain young workers need to meet this demand for training and growth opportunities.

Into the Future

If the job descriptions and training programs for public works positions still aren’t appealing to the younger workforce, perhaps the earning potential will. DCIA graduates will earn an average of $48.75 per hour — that’s more than 2.5 times the average hourly wage college graduates earn starting out. Considering that roughly one in four American adults has an average of about $40,000 in student loan debt to pay off, the increase in hourly wages as a recent graduate is a high incentive. Millennials value higher compensation over other job factors, such as benefits, and this fact, along with job security, is something that should be advertised to pull in a younger crowd.

Public works programs are crucial to maintaining infrastructure within local communities, and they play a vital role in ensuring the employment and success of residents. The industry faces a looming workforce gap, but with the right approach, it can be closed. A well-equipped younger generation can help build a brighter future for all.

Mike Russin is a business manager at WinCan, a sewer inspection software developer. WinCan identifies trends, pinpoints hotspots, prioritizes maintenance, helping municipalities forecast budgets for optimal sewer asset management. WinCan’s modular design supports emerging technologies like side scanning, laser, sonar and 3D visualization, as well as powerful features like image-based measurement and data validation, import and export.

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