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Workers still being trained for construction jobs

Training and education for construction jobs continues in the state even though the economy hasn’t recovered and construction projects have slowed down. Training isn’t as intense as it was in the time immediately following Hurricane Katrina, but industry educators feel the boom will return and a trained workforce must be ready.

“Things are pretty tight, but we are still training our apprenticeship students and most people have remained in the program,” said Gary Bumbauer, executive director of the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation. “The first-year class was small this year, and employers do not have many people to put in the first-year class. The second-, third- and fourth-year students have remained in the program.”

The apprenticeship training is a four-year program allowing students to work full time and go to school one night a week for five months each year. “Students who were in the training had the right attitude and retained their jobs even in these slow times,” he added. “I see on the horizon that pretty soon everyone is going to be very short of workers. We have indicators of some new things that look like they’re going to pick up over the summer. We also have some businesses hiring.”

Bumbauer says the biggest trade is electrical, and there is a pretty good demand for plumbers, too.

“I see this apprenticeship program prevailing. It’s a good deal for contractors because they can pay apprentice wages while the workers are training,” he said. “The employer usually pays the tuition or reimburses students for it.”

Construction training through the apprenticeship program is offered at Hinds Community College, Jones Junior College and Gulf Coast Community College’s Jefferson Davis Campus. The program is also approved through the state’s WIN Job Centers for individual training accounts for unemployed workers. Anyone who’s unemployed can go to a center to see if he or she qualifies.

Bumbauer is seeing a big interest in workforce training for the Kemper County plant being built by the Southern Company. “Contractors will hire from that area. They will call and ask who is in training in that region,” he said.

Buddy Edens, executive director of the Mississippi Associated Builders and Contractors, says there is not as much demand now for training as a few years ago. “We won’t see it increase until the economy turns around and more construction projects start,” he said. “We should do everything in our power to have people ready and trained to start working because things will get better.”

He observes some privately-funded projects hitting the market in addition to publicly-funded projects. “That tells us the economy is improving and investors have confidence in the market,” he added.

He and Bumbauer would like to see more emphasis put on technical training for high school students by parents and school officials. “We continue to be concerned about our state’s inability to reduce the high school dropout rate and provide those folks with workforce training,” Edens said. “We’re not doing that now in high school, so we’re losing that opportunity. Our industry is addressing that problem somewhat in that we have a high school outreach program that lets students take some training while still in high school.”

Construction training also continues at Pearl River Community College.

Dr. Scott Alsobrooks, director of workforce education, says the college started a welding program to support the Coast ship-building industry at its Hancock County Center in Waveland. It’s in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor and Mississippi Department of Employment Security.

“We’ve curtailed it somewhat and it’s the same with every program,” he said. “We know it’s a strong industry on the Coast and are trying to support the workforce needs. Job placement has been weaker but we’re still holding our own.”

A construction equipment operations course on the Poplarville Campus was converted to a credit course and has full enrollment. This program is possible through a partnership with the Puckett family, the Caterpillar Company, the Swanson family who own Stribling and John Deere equipment dealerships and Pearl River County contractor Huey Stockstill.

A utility line worker technology program is a two-year degree program funded by area electric power companies, Hattiesburg businessman Bobby Chain and the National Science Foundation.

“We also have full enrollment in that program and have been able to place people,” Alsobrooks said. “We have a welding program in Poplarville and on the Hattiesburg Campus. These programs are probably stronger now due to the economy. We’re needed now more than ever and are not cutting back on any construction related programs.”

Additionally, Pearl River has a construction management technology course geared to residential and commercial construction and drafting technology. Both are two-year degree programs.

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About Lynn Lofton

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