With help from national program unemployed vets turn to pipefittingTwo groups that have been hit hard by unemployment are trying to pair up to help each other: Construction companies need pipefitters and veterans need jobs.
By: By Shamane Mills, Wisconsin Public Radio, Superior Telegram
Two groups that have been hit hard by unemployment are trying to pair up to help each other: Construction companies need pipefitters and veterans need jobs.
In 2006, construction spending across the United States was at its peak. Then, the recession hit. Homes were lost, not built; businesses went under, not up.
“The past few years have been very difficult and challenging for the construction industry,” says Mark Rudnicki, CEO of Stevens Construction, based in Madison. “Total spending on construction activity has declined by a third since peaking back in March of 2006.”
Rudnicki says Wisconsin has lost 130,000 construction jobs since 2006. Some are coming back: Just under half the country's metro areas have seen an increase in construction, including Green Bay, Wausau, La Crosse and especially Madison, which hit a four-year high in February.
It is this increase that is prompting some construction companies to seek out veterans for a particular job. According Rudnicki, pipefitters are in short supply.
Before getting a job with H&H Industries, a Madison-based company, Justin Engelkens served three tours in Iraq as part of the Air National Guard. When he returned, the Belleville native was looking for work at a time when thousands of others were also trying to get hired.
“When I first got home it was pretty bad. My parents were obviously like you need to go get a job. But then, I'm used to getting the high pay of the military. You come back and you're like, 'I can't do an 8-dollar-an-hour job. I can't live on that.
Engelkens is in the second year of apprenticeship after taking a 16-week training course on pipefitting. Vets in Piping (VIP) is a national program where military men and women are trained by a national trade group, then go where there is work. No experience with pipefitting is necessary to get in to VIP; the criteria are having served your country.
The VIP program has rubbed some the wrong way. Michael Christensen is president of H&H Industries, which hires vets from the program.
“We've had a little bit of pushback from some people across the state — some contractors and actually some other apprentices that feel like the VIP program has given special consideration to vets,” he said. “I think they gave us some special treatment when they had bullets going over their head and bombs going off everywhere.”
The backlash over perceived favoritism can be strongest in areas where construction has not rebounded. According to figures from Associated General Contractors of America, construction employment has declined in Racine, Oshkosh and Appleton.
There is concern it won't improve there — or elsewhere — until the political climate does. The trade groups Wisconsin president, Mark Rudnicki, says the sequester is making indiscriminate cuts to federal construction programs.
“And while private sector spending has increased public sector spending in the last four years has decreased by 17 percent,” he said. “Even right now as a result of the sequester, $4 billion in federal construction cuts have taken place.”
Rudnicki says these are dollars that could be spent adding jobs for veterans and other construction workers across the country.