Bernie Suer is used to working on big projects. As Senior Vice President of Operations at Messer Construction, this 40-year industry veteran has played a role in some of the largest healthcare construction projects in Greater Cincinnati.
He is currently leading the $330 million Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center Critical Care Building (CCB). While the project is bringing significant physical changes to the campus, the lasting impact might not be a place – but a solution.
Suer and Stan Williams on the Messer Team wanted to build on a novel idea established years ago, expanding it on the Children’s Project. The idea was to use Building Value for “work hardening,” then use the CCB Project as a catalyst to lift low-income families in the Uptown community into good paying jobs with healthcare insurance and an opportunity to grow.
Through Messer’s partnership with Easterseals, Suer proposed setting a goal of connecting 50 people facing economic challenges to sustainable, in-demand careers in the construction industry by July 2021.
“It sounds so simple,” Suer says, but the reality is not as straight-forward as picking up a hammer or placing concrete. Many people who want to work face significant barriers beyond the skills gap. Issues like child care, transportation, and lack of other supports often stand between someone looking to better themselves and the path to success.
Suer had one tool to use to his advantage to break through those barriers: a long term relationship with Building Value. Easterseals opened Building Value in 2004 to provide workforce development for the construction industry. Candidates receive paid training over four to six months deconstructing homes and buildings, in addition to receiving support from Easterseals to overcome obstacles that have kept them from advancing on their own.
The Children’s project presented an opportunity to evolve the Building Value model and create the Uptown Workforce Development Initiative (UWDI). UWDI would be the system to identify candidates, train them through Building Value, and place them for further on-the-job development in a specific trade.
Suer says Building Value does a tremendous job at what he calls “work hardening.” In other words, learning the culture of work and the right frame of mind needed to earn and keep a job. Stanley WarrenHuffman, a Building Value employee, has been the UWDI coordinator working with Bernie for the last sixteen months.
“In a lot of programs, you sit in a classroom for 12 weeks, and you’re expected to go out and hold a job. That’s not the way that many of these folks were brought up,” Suer says. “Three to six months of going out in the cold, heat, and rain and then deconstructing, you’re taught pretty quickly what it’s like to have a job and a constant paycheck.”
The Uptown Workforce Development Initiative is already showing results. Eighteen candidates have completed training and moved on to sustainable employment in a variety of trades. The total is scheduled to reach 30 by the year 2020, with the goal of 50 being reached by January 2021.
“We’re in a great time for this program because of the workforce shortage (in the construction industry),” Suer said. “There’s tremendous growth potential in the construction pathway.”
Electricians, pipe fitters, plumbers, and iron workers are just a few examples of construction careers that are in-demand – but are going unfilled. Construction companies are willing to train, but Suer says, the real challenge is the work-hardening.
“We’re not skilled at it,” Suer says. “The reality is (the Building Value crew) does a very hard job. They’ve got to get something done with individuals who haven’t participated in something like this before.”
As the Uptown Workforce Development Initiative makes steady progress on its training goal, Suer has his eye to the future – and hopes this model helps to transform the future of construction training and adds more diversity to the industry.
“I would like this to be a sustainable initiative. How do we keep it going? I want to have a process in place that it can be transferrable. The industry needs something like this.”
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