Solving the Underground Construction Worker Shortage through Collaborative Training and Industry Rebranding

     

Uncovering the Next GENERATION of Workers

With millions of people forced to work or learn from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become clearer than ever that the country needs to expand and build on its broadband and fiber infrastructure. For a contractor in the underground construction industry, this should be great news.

Unfortunately, most contractors will tell you they still have a problem – there aren’t enough workers to staff their crews or operate their machines.

According to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), 80% of construction firms report having difficulty filling the positions that represent the bulk of the workforce. To put that in real-world terms, Sellenriek Construction has enough demand for work and enough equipment to manage at least six more crews – if there were enough workers to staff them.

Our industry needs to prioritize training and workforce development, and we need to rebrand our profession to help improve how the younger generation views underground construction jobs.

Solving the Worker Shortage Together

Contractors, industry groups and manufacturers alike are offering up solutions to help solve the worker shortage.

Contractors are offering better pay and benefits. Organizations like Power and Communications Contractors Association (PCCA) have made workforce development one of their top initiatives, offering scholarships for children of PCCA members and their employees. And manufacturers like Ditch Witch provide free, online training modules to simplify workforce development utilizing a digital format that’s familiar to younger generations.

Educational initiatives like the Utility Systems Technician program at the State Technical College of Missouri are also helping develop the next generation of workers. Established in part by PCCA, with the help of industry partners like Sellenriek Construction, the program is designed for prospective utility workers.

“Our students are looking for a comprehensive educational experience in underground construction and the industry is eager for young talent,” said Shawn Strong, president of the State Technical College of Missouri. “With the support of underground construction leaders, manufacturers and contractors, we’re creating a win-win scenario for the industry by educating workers to take on jobs that need to be filled.”

Approved by the PCCA, the program gives students a well-rounded education of the industry by providing hands-on experience in undergrounding, horizontal directional drilling, vacuum excavation and other skills that a successful contractor needs.

With new equipment donated to the program by Ditch Witch and Subsite Electronics, students can learn best practices on the latest equipment, so when they get out in the field, they’re ready to contribute immediately.

More Work to Do

Efforts like the Utility Systems Technician program are proving to be critical to helping solve our industry’s worker shortage problem. At Sellenriek Construction, over 70 employees are graduates of the State Technical College of Missouri program. Unfortunately, many contractors don’t have access to a similar pipeline of talent. Industry and academia should work together to make sure there is a Utility Systems Technician program in every state to provide a skilled workforce.

Too often, young people don’t see broadband installation as a viable career and dismiss underground construction as dirty, simplistic and unrewarding. However, the truth is, our industry is for problem solvers, hard workers and people interested in new technology.

By reminding young people of that, and by investing in educational and training programs, we can create a new generation of workers for our industry, which the country needs more than ever.

Steve Sellenriek is president of Sellenriek Construction, Inc. and has been involved in the underground construction industry for over 20 years. He is past president of the PCCA and currently sits on the board of the State Technical College of Missouri.

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