Building the Labor Force
With the help of state funding, Brunswick Community College’s construction workforce program offers free training in traditional construction trades.
True story: There’s a problem with the toilet in a newly purchased house. The owner calls a well-known local plumber. “I’d love to help you,” says the plumber, “but I can’t possibly get to it any sooner than six months. I simply don’t have enough help.”
Joke: A doctor has a problem with the exam room sink, so he calls a plumber who fixes the problem in short order.
Plumber: That will be $350.
Doctor: What? I don’t even make $350 an hour.
Plumber: I didn’t either when I was a doctor.
Brunswick County’s rapid pace of growth is stretching local building contractors to the limit, all due to one problem — a lack of skilled labor.
The need is so severe that the N.C. Commerce Department granted Brunswick County $400,000 over a two-year period to educate every willing adult in one or more of the traditional construction trades — welding, carpentry, plumbing, electrical, masonry and HVAC. Brunswick Community College (BCC) is administering the grant, known as Pathways to Progress, and administrators are working hard to get the word out.
The beauty of the grant is that it provides absolutely free schooling to individuals who are at least 18 years old. It pays for tuition, books, transportation, emergency needs, third party testing fees, credentials fees and more. The program will also help students with soft skills such as proper interview attire and interview performance. Another plus is that the training is intensive and quick, providing a lot of skills in a short period.
A recent gift of $200,000 from W.J. and Sibyl McLamb will be used by BCC to purchase tooling and equipment needed to train at BCC for national certifications as well as a van which can take the equipment to job sites, manufacturers and other places where on-the-job training can occur. “We’re getting calls saying ‘We need employees ASAP,’” says Greg Bland, vice president of continuing education & workforce development for BCC. “We don’t lock them in for two years. They need the basics and the credentials.”
The downside of the Pathways to Progress grant is that the money is only available for two years. Anyone interested must jump into the program before the April 2021 expiration.
Working in concert with NCWorks Local Innovation Fund and Brunswick County Homebuilders Association, BCC has identified several employers who will guarantee job interviews to graduates.
“The college is very receptive to community-based projects that provide instruction outside of the campus,” Bland says. Anyone who drives around the region has noticed there are still blue tarps in place from Hurricane Florence. That storm intensified an already bad situation in the labor force, Bland notes.
“Tourism and hospitality are the backbone of this county,” he says. “If we don’t have the infrastructure, people won’t come. We also continue to see an influx of retirees coming here to live. Finding the workers to build their houses has been a problem.”
Bland quotes recent N.C. Department of Commerce stats for Brunswick County: 130,000 residents with a median age of 52. Only 50,000 are working. Only 1,900, or 2 percent, know how to build anything. “This is scary,” he says. Bland blames perception for much of the problem, and so do others. “Part of the problem is that students, their families and high school guidance counselors are so focused on attaining a four-year degree that they don’t explore other options, Talbot Gee of Heating, Air-conditioning and Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI) trade association told writer Matthew Dembicki for Community College Daily. To reach students and their parents, HARDI has made a documentary that follows the careers of several young people in trade jobs. The group hopes the film will be available on Netflix later this year. If the problem persists, Gee expects price increases. Air-conditioning, for example, could move “from a staple technology to a luxury item,” he says. “It’s American for parents to tell their kids they need to do better,” Bland says. “Considering the potential lifetime earnings possible in construction, we may be doing our kids a disservice. There is a career ladder, but they don’t see it. You don’t just hammer shingles until you die. There are opportunities to grow and supervise and make a strong living wage.”
Betsy Braddock, owner of Braddock Built Renovations, agrees. She is always looking for employees in her business. “Years ago, our parents and grandparents told us that everyone who wanted to succeed in this country had to get a four-year degree at minimum,” she says. “We almost frowned upon anybody in the labor field. So we’ve done this to ourselves. We’ve got to undo it ourselves.” Braddock says she’s on a mission to make construction sexy again. “I started in this company from the bottom,” she says. “I worked on job sites, I picked up trash. I’ve learned every piece of this business along the way. That’s the best way, with the hands-on initiative that you’re going to be successful. We can’t be afraid to get dirty and to work hard. We’ve got to take pride in the hard work that it requires to move forward in this county.”
Braddock is past president of the Brunswick County Home Builders Association and co-founder of the Woodsong Scholarship for Construction Careers through BCC Foundation. The neighborhood of Woodsong originally created its annual arts event, Woodsong Porch and Art Stroll, in conjunction with Sunset River Marketplace artists to showcase the community, but the event quickly morphed into a fundraising effort. With the close of the fifth event in April 2019, the community had exceeded $40,000 raised for trades education and support. Now potential students need to step up and accept the grant funds. “I’m excited about the grant and Pathways to Progress because it meets an immediate need we have in Brunswick County,” says Dr. Gene Smith, president of BCC. “We are one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, requiring infrastructure and homes and people to provide those places and repair those places in which people reside.”
Smith says that since moving here in January, he has heard in every corner of the county the need for skilled employees in all of the trades of construction technology. “Pathways to Progress will remove the financial barrier for folks to receive the schooling necessary to help Brunswick County to continue to grow,” he says.
Smith emphasizes that the program is for anyone who is interested in getting a good job in a reasonably short period of time and to any business whose employees need additional skills training. It is important, he says, for students in middle school and high school to begin thinking of this as a possible career path and for the adult population to understand the opportunities that exist in these various fields. “As people gain the skill sets in these areas, there are great possibilities in entrepreneurship to start their own successful business,” Smith says.
Want to join the Pathways to Progress?
Inquiries about the Pathways to Progress construction workforce program and partnership opportunities at Brunswick Community College can contact:
Onya Gardner, dean of continuing education/workforce development, at (910) 755-7490
Greg Bland, vice president of continuing education/workforce development, at (910) 755-7374
For more information about Brunswick Community College go to brunswickcc.edu.