Covington construction trades school can’t open soon enough; industry desperate for skilled workers


City of Covington

John Kennedy sells paint for a living. He’s also a matchmaker, confidante, and sounding board.

From behind the counter of B&E Decorating near Ritte’s Corner in Latonia, Kennedy oversees a widespread network of sorts consisting of contractors and homeowners who funnel through his small store buying paint and seeking connections.

These days, that network seethes with frustration.

“Every day I hear it, from painters, plumbers, general contractors, carpenters, and drywallers – no matter what the trade, they all need help, desperately,” Kennedy said. “And because the small contractors are dying for help, the homeowners who want to hire them have found that the pool of people they can hire has shrunk, badly. And if I can match them up, what used to take two to three weeks for the work to start now takes two to three months.”

The Enzweiler Building Instittue which teaches essential construction trades like plumbing is opening a Latonia campus this fall.

Kennedy’s assessment rings true as yet another shred of evidence that all points to this: A new construction trades school planned in the Latonia neighborhood can’t open soon enough.

Whether you measure the urgency by Facebook chatter, national stats, pleas for help from contractors, underemployed heads of households, jobless high school graduates, delayed construction schedules, or the construction labor pool gap, it’s clear that the need for the joint venture is intense:

Since the City of Covington announced the project in a news release last month, a Facebook post linking to that release has been “shared” from the City’s site almost 2,000 times, been seen by 200,000 people, and been visible on a computer or phone’s screen almost a quarter of a million times.

Meanwhile, a national industry association estimates that almost 1.3 million more construction workers will be needed by 2023.

And local contractors and builders interviewed for this article say that – given the current workforce environment – they can’t keep up with people who need houses rebuilt, renovated, and restored.

It’s in this marketplace that the City is partnering with the Building Industry Association of Northern Kentucky (BIA-NKY) to create a Covington campus of the association’s heralded Enzweiler Building Institute.

Slated to open in September 2022, the school will train both high school students and adults in some of the industry’s most in-demand trades, including carpentry, welding, electricity, HVAC, and plumbing. The goal – as seen HERE — is part of the City’s long-term strategy to skill up its local workforce and not only improve individual household income but also help the construction industry fill a critical need.

Dr. Vicki Berling, the Director of Professional Development for BIA-NKY who manages the Building Institute, said she’s approached daily by employers seeking skilled workers.

“Every week – honestly, typically every day – employers reach out to me to ask if we have any available workers in the skilled trades,” Berling said. “This is across all of the fields we train for, but I especially hear from employers who are looking for carpentry-related skills or construction laborers as well as a constant request for workers in electric. Virtually all our current students are already working in the field, so clearly the demand exceeds our current ability to fill the jobs.”

Anticipation in the industry

Talk to industry leaders, and they say the new school can’t open fast enough:

John Hodge, president of Century Construction: “The new Construction Trades School is a long time coming and will provide excellent opportunities for students and employers … students will no doubt have many job opportunities upon graduation and most likely even before they graduate.”

John Curtin, senior vice president of Hemmer construction: “Right now, manpower in most, if not all, of the trades is in high demand. These are not just short-term jobs – these are careers. Individuals who excel will also have the chance to someday own and manage their own businesses. This is truly exciting and what a great time to get started.”

Brian Miller, Executive Vice President, BIA-NKY: “We’re at a confluence of situations where we have the opportunity to do work to fill that gap and at the same time train people in a great trade where they can have a great career and build wealth early.”

The opportunity for Covington residents is especially high, since 25 percent of seats in any of the school’s classes will be reserved for Covington students and residents up until 30 days before classes start.

The Covington campus will also be the site of the future Restoration Trades seminars and workshops that BIA-NKY is working with the City to establish. Those programs – as seen HERE – will teach specialized skills related to working on historic structures.

Covington officials say the “set-aside” for its residents was key.

“We have a situation where contractors need workers for projects of all sizes and are paying excellent wages to those workers, if they can find them,” said Covington Economic Development Director Tom West. “At the same time, we have residents and students living in Covington who need a living wage and want to do work that matters to them — in some instances, they’re already working two or three part-time jobs just to make ends meet. Our hope is that the Enzweiler Building Institute can help us bring those two together so companies can find the workers they need and our workers can work smarter, not harder, to build solid family income.”

Industry gap

The divide between the industry’s skilled labor pool and available jobs is deep and getting deeper, with an estimated need of at least 60,000 more workers in the Greater Cincinnati market over the next 10 years, Miller said.

“We’re seeing an acceleration of the labor skills gap and we don’t see it slowing down – we’re seeing it widen,” Miller said. “Those are jobs that are the major components of construction – we’re talking carpentry, electric, welding, HVAC. If you stretch that out and look at other fields, the task is massive.”

Tackling that “massive” task to build a new body of talent is twofold: attract individuals to the construction, then educate them. As for the jobs, they’re waiting to be filled.

“Students will no doubt have many job opportunities upon graduation and most likely even before,” Century Construction’s Hodge said.

And that gap exists around the country. The Associated Builders and Contractors, a national industry association, reported in a recent analysis that showed the United States will see a demand for 1.28 million more construction workers by 2023. Other estimates are even higher.

Recruiting workers

The lack of skilled workers hits project schedules and costs hard.

“We are impacted most dramatically on (a job’s) schedule when skilled labor is the issue,” said Hemmer’s Curtin. “Construction is a fast-paced industry and schedule is always one of the critical decision topics when pursuing new projects. Obviously, everyone would like their project completed yesterday, but lack of manpower will dramatically affect each company’s ability to complete their work on a timely basis.”

At Century Construction, Hodge said the impact of the lack of skilled construction has only gotten worse for them. Since 2018, seven longtime employees have retired and two more will retire this year.

Replacing that talent is tough.

“These individuals spent their entire career in the construction industry and cannot be replaced easily,” Hodge said. “The limited availability of workers limits our ability to take on more work and grow the company. It leads to longer completion times on projects and higher prices for our customers.”

To help attract workers, the company has improved its benefits in numerous ways, such as paying annual cash bonuses, increasing raises, and reducing co-pays for medical insurance. Hodge said that entry-level workers, those with essentially no experience, are paid full benefits, including holiday pay, vacation pay, medical insurance, and more.

That even includes reimbursement for tuition – such as the new trades school planned for Latonia.

On the bus route

The school will lease 8,000 square feet of space last occupied by Check Exchange and Rent to Own from Latonia Commerce, LLC, in the strip center adjacent to and north of the former Value City and Burlington Coat Factory big box stores. The location is on a TANK bus route, is close to major transportation routes, and within walking distance of at least some Covington high school students.

Ben Taylor, division president of The Drees Company and BIA-NKY president, said that the school’s location in Latonia will be a key factor in attracting students.

“This location will offer trade education opportunities for the populations in the river cities that may be underserved by the location of the existing Enzweiler Institute in Erlanger,” Taylor said.

Miller agreed that location matters.

“We’re excited about the location in Latonia, being surrounded by people who can tap into this opportunity,” Miller said. “People want to train where they live, especially those without easy access to transportation, and this brings the opportunity home to a location that can benefit the community.”

It’s an industry where skills and hands-on experience is critical.

“Employers want an employee who can actually do the job, and that’s where we step in and connect people who learn by doing with a trade where they can do exceptionally well,” Miller said. “We produce individuals who are going through life without college debt, have a valued trade, are marketable, and are building wealth early in their life. We’re introducing people to a lifelong career that they can take as far as they want.”


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