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Commentary: A multi-generational solution to a right-now situation

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Ed Dalrymple

IN THE CONSTRUCTION field, a story that begins with “Back in my day ...” is going to lead somewhere good. You’re going to hear about change, grit, but ultimately, you’re going to be pulled in by someone who has decades of knowledge to learn from.

You see, back in my day, our business was done by driving stakes in the ground and using strings to put a curb line into a highway project. Now, you see someone with a computer who is using a dozen or so satellites, telling them where they are in relationship to the project plan.

Also, back in my day, a business owner would hire multiple generations of a single family in the workplace. But today, the family trade has skipped a generation. Fewer people are considering skilled trade careers at a time when the industry needs workers the most.

I see this as a business owner. And I’m not the only one. That’s why Virginia’s community colleges and four of Virginia’s construction associations came together to help launch and shape the Virginia Infrastructure Academy as a way to train and create a talent pipeline to the thousands of jobs across Virginia that require skilled and technical aptitude.

We can’t get enough CDL drivers and operators, mechanics, technicians, welders. And that need is the same whether you’re doing road construction, broadband installation, solar, offshore wind or bridge and tunnel work. This is why the Virginia Infrastructure Academy is so critical.

The steering committee for the academy is looking at the open jobs, the demand signal across sectors and the projects currently being planned. We’re working with the colleges to do a program inventory to see what must be added or expanded to address worker shortages. We’re also looking for ways to leverage technology to eliminate barriers so more students can train more quickly, affordably and efficiently. Programs like FastForward and G3 are just two of the tuition-reducing programs that emphasize skilled trades education, granting access to more Virginians.

Another way we’re increasing access is through the sharing of resources. With Germanna Community College, we’re digitizing the curriculum for asphalt technology so no matter where you are in Virginia, you can learn online, and complete hands-on training locally.

According to Virginia’s community colleges, students who completed FastForward training on average received a 55 percent increase in wages. But for those pursuing training related to infrastructure, those wage increases were even higher. In skilled trades programs like powerline worker and heavy equipment operator, gains were up $13,307. For welding and manufacturing, gains were just shy of $17,000. With just a couple of months of training, you can completely change your financial picture and your career trajectory.

For some careers, starting wages are in the $40,000 range. As you gain more skills and become a master of the craft, you’re looking at hundreds and even thousands of dollars per hour. Starting an infrastructure-related career is a good opportunity, for a cost that is reasonable – virtually free in many cases.

But where is the next generation? This is where the opportunity lies.

Older workers who have spent a lifetime on the job will continue to retire, but they have blueprints our younger workers need. As workers age out, they can act as mentors by becoming instructors at their local community college, where they can share knowledge with cohort after cohort.

Our training programs need to have veterans of the field, helping to bring that excitement down to the next generation, telling the “Back in my day” stories. We need to establish and foster mentorship between generations to help keep the craft alive and to keep good people employed.

Creating these opportunities is part of my legacy. How will you impart your knowledge on the next generation?

Edward C. Dalrymple Jr. is president of Chemung Contracting Corp., Dalrymple Holding Corp. and Cedar Mountain Stone Corp., and is a member of the state board for community colleges.

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