Report finds ‘mixed picture’ for metro Milwaukee construction workforce

Construction crews unloading equipment at The Couture site in May 2021.

Metro Milwaukee’s construction labor market is as tight as it has been in at least 20 years, there is a generally strong pipeline of apprentices but there are opportunities to improve programs aimed at Milwaukee residents and to expand efforts to strengthen gender and racial diversity in the construction workforce, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

The report, released this week, takes stock of the metro area’s construction workforce, relying on several data sources along with interviews and surveys of general contractors, unions and trade groups.

“Our analysis reveals a mixed picture,” the report’s executive summary says. “Some of the data we collected and input we received from industry leaders suggest the workforce is stable and supported by a relatively robust pipeline of new workers, while other evidence highlights current worker shortages that may reflect longer-term challenges for at least some trades and types of workers.”

The report notes the region is seeing plenty of construction activity with at least 21 projects in the region valued at $50 million or more slated for completion by 2025. Combined, those projects have a value of more than $3 billion. Unemployment in the construction sector is near a record low and job openings at a more than a 20-year high.

Between 2012 and 2021, union construction workers saw their total number of hours worked increase 19.9% while the number of active workers increased 3.2%, the report found.

The report’s mixed picture begins to emerge in apprenticeship data. The overall number of apprentices in metro Milwaukee has increased substantially in the past decade from around 1,200 in 2012 to 3,040 in 2022. Most of the growth took place between 2013 and 2019, with a slight dip amidst the pandemic.

However, the report points out that five unions in the area – glazers, tile setters, roofers, bricklayers and ironworkers – have seen apprenticeships decline by at least 17% in the past five years. Similarly, the roofers, painters and heat and frost insulators all said they do not have enough workers ready to start apprenticeship to compensate for looming retirements.

Roofers, painters, boilermakers, bricklayers and Teamsters also said they do not have enough journey workers ready to step into leadership roles. Lack of interest in leadership roles was also an issue cited by contractors when discussing workforce issues, the report said.

One potential source of additional workers is the Residents Preference Program, which aims to get Milwaukee residents involved in construction. Projects with city funding generally have requirements for amount of work done by RPP workers.

The report found more than 8,700 workers have been certified in the RPP program since 2012, including more than 1,000 per year from 2014 to 2018.

“Once certified, workers are eligible indefinitely with no need to recertify, which makes it impossible to estimate how many may still be pursuing work in the local construction industry at any given time. City leaders may wish to require workers to recertify periodically to give employers and industry leaders a clearer understanding of the size of the available workforce and how it aligns with demand,” the report notes.

The report also found “limited progress has been made in diversifying the construction workforce” in metro Milwaukee. Among all participants, the share of Black apprentices in the region has fallen from 10% in 2014 to 6.5% in 2022. The share of female apprentices has increased slightly, from 2.6% to 3.3% over the same period.

“One potential strategy for strengthening retention that emerged from our interviews was to expand mentorship programs that pair apprentices of color and female apprentices with experienced workers of the same identities,” the report notes.

Hispanic apprentices do represent an area of progress where the share of apprentices has gone from 8% in 2012 to 12.1% in 2022.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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