This week’s guest on the Work Done Right podcast is Jennifer Wilkerson, who joins the show to discuss how we can rebuild our talent pipelines in the skilled trades by rethinking our approach to education and diversity.
About Jennifer Wilkerson
Jennifer is the VP of Innovations and Advancement at the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER). She is also the host of “The Builders’ Table” podcast.
Prior to her time with NCCER, Jennifer was as an educator, teaching high school English for thirteen years before moving onto managing operations for Wilkerson Welding and Fabrication.
Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn.
With Jennifer’s expertise and knowledge of skilled trades, she offered a lot of great resources and information during her conversation with Wes.
- Vocational education took a hit when the GI Bill was introduced after World War II. Despite offering many amazing benefits for the men and women who serve our country, it had the unintended consequence of making it seem as though college was the right path forward.
- Average ages of apprenticeship in community colleges are around 27 and 28 years old, which represents the journey of people trying to figure out where they should go and what they should do with their life. Oftentimes, it’s because they weren’t provided the right resources and options to figure this out while they were still in middle school and high school.
- Recruiting additional women to join the construction industry represents a significant opportunity to add talent to skilled trades. Women also offer many benefits to construction projects, including being strong facilitators of teamwork.
So, Jennifer, that’s quite a round trip that you made to get into the industry. Could you tell us a little bit about how you personally got involved into the industry and just giving us a little more detail about your background?
Sure, absolutely. So, as you said, I taught high school English. My husband was a welder went through an apprenticeship program in Dade County school system while I was teaching down there. And then after teaching, whenever I decided to I’m going to leave this for a little bit.
I was teaching high school English. I went over and helped my husband with the fabrication shop. Loved what I was doing there. And then 2009 hit, and so the Great Recession. And what do you do? And you want to make sure that you have another income besides just your own small business.
And I found the National Center for Construction, Education and Research. And this was a beautiful marriage. It was like, I have education and I have construction, and it’s all built into one. And so it was just both those facets of my life.
I had a huge opportunity to come to NCCR and start it out in their product development department here. And helped develop curriculum and assessments, and then moved into marketing and eventually into innovations and advancement.
That definitely does make sense. That is, like you said, a beautiful marriage between your experience in both sides of that with what it is that NCCER does. I’m sure many of our listeners have heard of the National Center for Construction Education and Research, but for those who haven’t, could you describe a bit about what all you all do and what the mission of the organization is?
Sure, absolutely. So we’re a 501 nonprofit organization, and as I mentioned, we develop curriculum and assessments for all things craft professionals. And so that may be a four-level carpentry program or a pipe fitting or wind turbine maintenance technician program.
And so we developed these programs to make sure they meet the time-based requirements as set forth by the Department of labor apprenticeship programs. And so people can do it that way, or they can actually go in based on competencies and modules, and they can pick and choose which competencies they need taught.
Whether this is in a high school, it might be taught in a community college, might be taught in an association, an industry association, or even in correctional facilities to give people a second chance and help lower recidivism rates.
And so basically, we just have this structured program. It is standardized. And so what that means is organizations become accredited by NCCR so that they can send someone to the train, the trainer, and they can send instructors to be certified, so we can ensure that standardization and delivery.
And the reason for that is so that we can offer credentials. And it’s really important that as we put credentials out there that are recognized by the industry and better known as NCCR wallet cards and NCCR credentials so that they mean something to the people that the employers that are hiring people.
To a training location that looks up someone that wants to pick up their training from where they left off. And then we also offer journey-level assessments. So for people that may not have gone through a formalized training program, but they deserve the credit for what they have, they need to have a transcript.
They need to have credentials and certifications. We also develop that side for them. And I think this is this is something that my heart’s really behind, because having my husband be in construction and be a welder, my father was a contractor in Dave County, Florida, and so I think it’s super important for us to give that representation and those credentials.
This is someone else’s four year degree, right? Sometimes you do this first and go to college, or sometimes you do this instead of college. And those people, anybody in this profession knows that they’re a technician.
They are a craft, skilled professional, and the credentials are really, really important.
So I’m an NCCER certified pipe fitter, and I can’t tell you how many times one, before I actually had the opportunity, in order to go through the program, how many times people would look at, effectively, my resume and say, well, maybe you’re not necessarily qualified because I didn’t go through a conventional apprenticeship program.
But then having received, like you said, that wallet card, that nice. Blue card great for certain other activities, but how much it comes in so handy as just really aside from maybe having an additional accreditation due to an apprenticeship, really, the certifying body for the entirety of the industry, it definitely means something, at least and I’m biased, but definitely means something. Whenever you are certified through NCCER.
We’ll take it. I’m glad that you went through, you know, a program so that you have that in your wallet.
You also, I think I heard you say something around wind turbine mechanics and a couple of newer industries that in relation to these green energy fields.
Is that a growing industry for you all? Is that somewhere where you’re seeing a lot of growth?
I think it will be. I don’t know that we can at this time quantify it, but we are in the midst of updating our solar.
So we have a solar program that came out years ago and may have been a little before its time, which is not always something that curriculum that has been around for a long time can say. But we’ve really seen an uptick.
There’s a lot of interest in this. What I think is really interesting is, regardless of what new facet of energy we go into, it’s still the skill sets that are really important for the people. So whether it’s the electrical behind of it or the roofing or something in solar or the carpentry or all of these other trades in these specific skills or wind turbine maintenance technician, when it’s an iron worker and someone that can do industrial maintenance.
There’s so many things that really rely on essential skills that I’m super excited at seeing everywhere that the industry goes and knowing that these professionals can use these skills in this documentation of their skills to go as far as they want in our industry.
It’s limitless, right? Like unlimited. What do you want to do? Great. I’ve got the skills, I’ve got the experience. I can go and be and do whatever I want to be in the. Big picture overall, not just in some of these newer emerging industries.
Could you provide us a little bit of an overview to the current skilled labor shortage that we’re seeing here in the United States, including a bit about the history and the origins of that?
Which is a really great point to talk about because a lot of people may not know the history of that. But I’ll start out by saying that I’ve seen as many as. 1.9 million craft professionals needed by 2025, that there was currently about 650,000 positions that aren’t filled when it comes to the trades, which is which is scary.
But what you’re hitting on is exactly what’s really important, because we’re at a we’re at a pivotal point in our industry because we do have so many experienced, wonderful craft professionals, but many of them are retired.
And I’ve heard numbers as far as for every four that are leaving our industry, there’s only one coming in. And so the question is, why? Why aren’t people choosing construction? This gives people the opportunity to travel.
This gives them a fantastic wage. It gives them prestige. It gives them that really great pride where they can go around and say, I built that. I did that, so why not? And so one of the things that’s really interesting is, after World War II, one of the programs that came in is the GI Bill.
Fantastic program. Let’s make sure that our veterans who are returning can go right into education and have that taken care of for them. Higher education, go to college. That’s great. But what happened is we see a shift at that point in our history where success got equated directly to a college degree.
Nobody’s specific fault. There was no intention for that. But if this is what success looks like, then everyone needs to go to college, and that should be what we what we drive to. And so what we saw is, as time went on there, fewer and fewer people chose to go the route of technical skills going into industrial programs at their high school.
In fact, some negative connotations came about with those courses in schools. And so we see vocational ed get a really a black eye at some point in all of that where people thought, well, the students that can’t should go over there.
The students that aren’t sitting still and aren’t interested should be in our. Industrial arts class, or our culinary arts or our automotive class or whatever. And that is the furthest from the truth, right?
These, we need the Valedictorian, we need math, we need science, we need all of that in the construction industry and automotive and all of these, because we need people that can communicate well, that can lead well, that know, that can learn, doing it right with their hands.
They like to do it. And that’s sometimes why students don’t want to sit in class. Because they can’t relate the knowledge part of it, the theory part of it, to what will I do and what does this mean?
So vocational education took this, this hit over a few decades there and then they reinvented themselves with career and technical education. And this was really important because Perkins funding came out and people started noticing, wow, we really need to start building this back up because who’s going to build the world?
Who’s going to build the environment? When I turn on a switch at my house, the lights come on. And so how is that going to happen? And how are we going to have clean, fresh water for people? There is technology, there’s construction behind that that is super, super important.
Who’s going to build the roads we drive on? The schools we go to, the hospitals we send our sick to? This is all about our industry. So career in technical education has really worked on that. I will say the exciting thing for me is I do feel like the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way.
We do see a greater interest. As terrible as the Pandemic has been for us, it has really put a spotlight on industries that stick working, that are sustainable, that are critical to the things we do, to the lives we lead.
It’s also the understanding that we have a lot of college debt in this nation and we have a lot of people that are not actually doing what they went to college for. And so we see. Average ages of apprenticeship in community colleges at 27 and 28 years old, where people did this journey of trying to figure out where they should go because we didn’t help them figure that out in middle school and high school.
So I just feel like it is coming back. There’s a lot of options on the table, and I think people need to be aware of how essential career and technical education is to everyone across the board.
Hey, real quick, this is Wes.
I just wanted to let you know that if you have an idea for an episode topic or a great guest suggestion, we would love to hear from you. Just send us an email at WorkDoneRight@cumulusds.com. Now, back to the show.
We’ve all heard quite a few times that it’s important in order to to get women into the trades, but it’s not always clear as far as the defined reason as to why that is. In our initial conversation, you touched on some really interesting statistics and some nuanced ideas about this that really gives a solid foundation for why we need to be targeting women into the skilled trades.
Definitely a subject very near and dear to my heart. So, first of all, over 50% of the population are women. So if we’re having such serious shortages in any industry, this really needs to be looked at, but specifically in construction.
And I think the reason it’s important is recently I’ve seen stats where people are talking about it’s great, there’s more women in construction. We’ve got 11% of the overall construction workforce, and that is really good.
But we need to be very clear about who that is. So 11% overall when we’re talking about office and managerial and administrative work, too, if we’re talking talking about the trades, if we’re talking about the true craft professionals, we’re still only about 4% are females, 4% are women in the overall construction industry that are actually doing the trades, that are in the trades.
And that’s the number that we’ve really got to shift. And so we’re in the midst of a huge research project here that we’ll be releasing. But some of the interesting things that we even looked at is why women?
So it’s not about just the numbers, okay? We have a workforce shortage, so let’s get more women, therefore we have more people. But what we really looked at, and we asked women, and we also asked manager management positions about this, what do women specifically bring to the industry that we should be wanting to recruit and wanting to retain?
And overwhelmingly team focused was one of the number one things. Women not only want to succeed themselves, they want people around them. It’s just our nature, right? We want everyone to succeed. We want to be a part of team and we want to help everyone be better.
And so there’s actually been research that was done by the Construction Industry Institute, which separate from NCCER doing this, that interviewed over 2000 craft professionals about their own performance and how they performed.
And we found that if they had at least one female, one woman on their crew, they actually said their performance was better. And this was significantly. The numbers were amazing. And it wasn’t even something necessarily the Construction Industry Institute went looking for.
But they found and again, that goes back to that team spirit that wanting everyone to succeed. Let me help you succeed. It’s not just about me. The other things that we’ve heard about for years is attention to detail.
Women are very patient. Women are very patient and they also like to follow directions. And so that may sound like that sounds very familiar, and it is. But because of this, because women don’t necessarily have the physical strength that a man may have on a project site, they do look for the details.
They do look for the processes on how to do that efficiently and how to help themselves do that. So what we have found out is women have the tendency to follow the design plans as written. Because the technology that has come in and the way we are engineering things is to be more efficient.
And it’s not. We want to be a very safe industry, and our industry has been so incredibly focused on that. And it is vitally important that we reduce the injuries and that we keep safety at the utmost for every project.
By following those processes, we are able to do that, and we’re able to move move away from as many injuries. And women have the tendency to do that. And I don’t think that’s any surprise to anybody that women are patient and that they follow directions and that they’re concerned about the other people on the project site.
And then along with that, even just the organization. So we know, male and female, there’s things that we have tendencies that we like to do. Women love to organize. We love to do that. And we know that through OSHA 1926.
Housekeeping is part of and now that may have negative connotations with some people, but it is part of a project site. And it is crucially important on a project site, again, for safety reasons that it’s important.
And so these are elements that we found when we started talking to the women on the project sites. And we asked them, what do you bring? And they told us. And then when we were interviewing management, when we were discussing really in focus groups, they were saying the same thing.
Here’s what we have found women are bringing to our project sites.
Are there any other ways in which you’ve seen or that it’s been studied that having a woman in as part of the crew kind of helps out maybe the culture of the crew or just a little bit of the behaviors, the individuals I’m speaking a little bit off of just kind of some of what I’ve seen.
People’s willingness to behave in a way when there are or whenever there aren’t women in the in the near area right in proximity. So is there any observations there?
Well, I don’t know that we dealt with specifically that.
But I will tell you, just being positive and going back to that teamwork and that caring and the supportive that lends itself into all kinds of things. So right now in society in general, we’ve talked about mental health and the importance of that.
And some of the things that we did uncover on this is just that positivity of the whole, whole crew, of the team that’s working together, because we tend, again, to want women tend to want to help out and make sure and their concern, that concern is really shown.
And so what we saw was even today with this concern, like I said, it’s societal. But even in our industry about mental health and about mental safety and awareness, having these women as part of the team, we did see a difference in that portion of it.
So are there any other research opportunities? I hear that there’s a pretty great new research report related to Women in Construction that you all are working on.
Ours will be coming out during Women in Construction Week, which is March 5 through the 11th.
And as we’re all celebrating Women in Construction Week and the whole month is Women in History Month, we will be releasing this document. And what we’re doing is, as I said, we interviewed, we had focus groups, so over 170 craft professionals in the field from people that were on sites for just a few months, all the way till 20 plus years.
And so this is a very eclectic group of women that we spoke to and then spoke to management teams. But when we released this, what we’re wanting to do is not just focus on the stats, but focus on, as we discussed here, the reasons why.
Why should we include women on our project sites, but also then guidelines. So one of the things we’re really proud of is we looked at this and we asked the women, so how do we make this better? What do we need to do?
Give it to us, in your words, of what you think that we can do as an industry. Because my goal, our goal. Should be. We would love for construction to be the industry of choice for women. We want to be the industry of choice for young girls.
We want them to be proud of building things and maintaining things and whether they stay in construction the whole time or they, you know, move up into a different industry or stay within our industry and become an engineer or go into a marketing department or do whatever, it’s just the importance.
We want young women, we want to be able to recruit them. We want them to think construction when they think of what do I want to do in this world? We start out as children, building sandcastles and building things, and then at some point we stop our children from thinking that that could be their career opportunity.
I saw a survey years ago, and I don’t remember exactly where I saw it from, but they had interviewed young girls that were like, ten years old and they asked them if they would consider construction, and the majority of them said no.
And when they asked them why, they said, well, I don’t think I can do that. I don’t think I physically can do that, or I’m supposed to do that. And so we really have to stop that stigma and we have to go down and we have to help these young women and these young girls understand.
Again, the sky is the limit. You can do whatever you want and the construction industry can help you do that.
You touched on this idea of at least joining the industry, but maybe this isn’t your long term career, right?
I think that it’s just an interesting idea to talk around with. The thought of just because you start down this trajectory of getting into a skilled trade doesn’t mean that you can’t go to college later.
I say this and as an individual, that again, I spent 15 years in the industry and I graduated from college last year.
Absolutely. We see it all the time. In fact, I interviewed on a podcast not too long ago, a gentleman that started out doing diesel mechanic, then did heavy equipment and then went into welding, and then decided to go to college for welding technology and then went and got a degree as a teacher and then got his masters in psychology.
Here’s the great thing that happens with construction that people don’t know. Number one, you can earn as you learn, right? So you don’t have to go into debt to learn how to do something or to succeed at something or to be great at it.
So there’s lots of construction companies that pay for people to get the training, but then even after you get that training, like you said, or if you didn’t do formal training, then you’re able to put yourself, you get the opportunity to explore.
You get the opportunity to travel. If you’re with a company that has projects in different places in the United States, where do I want to live? What do I want to do, what do I enjoy? Construction, affords, all of that for people.
And in fact, I don’t know any other industry that lets someone that is open as we are to look. You can start on your tools, and you can work your way up and own your own business. You can be a CEO. You can be a vice president.
So Boyd Worsham, that’s our CEO here, started on his tools as a carpenter in 1980, and he worked his way up at a great organization called Haskell, and they paid for him to get his MBA, and he ended up being a vice president and stayed there for 38 years.
My husband did tech school, so he went to trade school at night, and he did that, and he owns his own business. So I just think there’s so many opportunities. I think construction provides opportunities that people haven’t even thought about or fathom.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a young person, you should absolutely check it out, travel a little bit, figure it out. There’s so many jobs, like you said, so many careers, whether you stay in the construction industry or not.
But I think there’s a lot of careers we don’t think about. We need accountants. We need marketing. We need all of this stuff. And when people know a little bit about construction. It makes it even greater for them to be at any part of a company.
There’s a general theme that persists that people make jokes about for a long time, right, where it’s this freshman or sophomore in college. They’re there. They don’t know what they’re doing with themselves.
They’ve swapped majors three, four, five different times because they’re just kind of finding themselves and figuring out what they want to do with their lives. It’s interesting to me that people take that as an opportunity to kind of explore what it is that they want to do, which just kind of leads them into getting into debt and they never really get anywhere.
Whereas they could take that same mentality work toward learning a skilled trade, developing themselves as an individual, developing their career. And then once you kind of learn a little bit about what it is that you actually want to do with yourself, you can actually pursue that, right?
Like you said, you develop such a skill set that is extremely valuable. Actually kind of going along with this, though, are there any resources for high school age kids or college age people that they can look into, to either look into getting certified through the National Center for Construction, Education and Research or to get into the skilled trades?
NCCER has a few. So we have our Build Your Future initiative so people can see that they can look up Build Your Future. They can go to Byf.org. And what that is really the opportunity for them to find out, what is construction like?
What does that mean? What would I do? And I don’t know what a pipe fitter is. What does that even mean? It gives them the chance to explore. We actually even have a quiz, a fun quiz on there. Do you are you afraid of heights?
Do you like tinkering? It gives just interesting things that they could relate to, to help them at least kind of. Whittle it down if they don’t really know anything about the construction industry. So total exploration.
And then we also have a career starter tool where someone can build a profile and if they want to see what jobs are out there locally, near them, or with different contractors, there’s a place on there for contractors to post entry level jobs.
So it doesn’t have to be someone that’s experienced and that’s this career starter is only for that. So career starter, starter legitimately. Someone needs a carpenter that has three years experience or a pipe there.
This is not the place for them to post jobs. So we actually go through those and make sure these are companies and organizations that are willing to hire people and get them started. So I would say those career starter, build your future.
We also on our NCCER website have find a training center. So what people can do is click on the Find A Training Center, put in their zip code, and find out what training programs are near them that they could go and look into.
Because we have over 6000 locations across the United States that actually utilize NCCER. Now, some of these are contractors that are not open to the public. Some, as I said, correctional facilities. Some of them are high school.
So maybe you don’t live in the right district, but there’s lots of community colleges and there are Associated Builders and Contractors and Associated General Contractors and a lot of organizations. There’s youth building, job core, and so many fantastic programs across the United States, nonprofit and profit, that are utilizing NCCER so people can get their foot in the door.
And then I would say I would challenge people. It’s getting ready to be summertime. What are you going to do this summer? What are you going to build? Where are you going to be? Like, take the opportunity.
There’s a lot of jobs. I know recently we were with Kiwi at a conference and they were telling us that they have hundreds and hundreds of internships available in the summertime. So. There’s so much to find.
I would say get out there, get on some of these tools, check it out. You can start now.
What about for educators that want to maybe bring in some resources into their schools to help make some students maybe again, labor ready?
Are there any resources that schools, high schools can reach out to and engage with an organization like the National Center for Construction, Education and Research?
Sure. So, absolutely. In CCR, on our website in Ccr.org, we have workforce development managers.
So we have six regional workforce development managers that help out with different parts of the United States that can just answer questions because sometimes it’s like you said, people don’t even know where to start.
We’re in the midst of releasing a brand new website in April that will make it even easier so people will be able to find their particular type of channel. I’m a high school or I’m a community college or I’m an association.
But right now, I would say the best thing to do is to go to our website and find out the workforce development manager in their area. I would also say there are a lot of, as I mentioned previously, associated Builders and Contractors and Associated General Contractors that sponsor schools that are accredited by NCCER and they’re kind of that middle person locally and can help them get started.
So that’s another avenue that someone could take.
Rapid Fire Questions
What song do you turn to in order to get motivated?
So it would have to be the chorus part of this because otherwise it doesn’t make sense and it would be Stronger by Kelly Clarkson.
But when it first starts out, people like, okay, what’s going on here? But I’m not going to lie, you know, I love Queen and I love some older I’m a southern rock girl at heart coming from Homestead, Florida.
But I would say that’s a good motivational, one that gets me going.
Where’s the favorite place that you’ve traveled to?
I would say gosh, I’ve traveled to so many incredible places that I love, but I would say Yellowstone.
Anything out there in the west is beautiful. Open land.
Cats or dogs?
What one word best describes you?
Realistic? So I think earlier you were saying even the information I gave was very pragmatic.
So I just kind of live in that world bringing you get excited and you want to do all kinds of things and I have that kind of personality, but I also want to get things done and say, you have to be a realist.
What is your favorite quote?
So my favorite quote is really one that maybe that came from somewhere. But what I always tell my girls and I tell everybody, show up. Those are my famous words. Show up.
Show up mentally. Show up physically. Show up for your friends. Show up for your family. Show up for your employer, your colleagues. You need to show up. That’s the first thing you have to do.
If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, living or dead, who would it be?
My parents. Both of my parents are passed on, so it would absolutely be my parents.