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Facing Labor Shortage, CRE Companies Reach Into High Schools For Recruits

"Get 'em while they're young," the saying goes. In today's notoriously tight labor market, the adage rings truer than ever — because if firms wait until students are older, they might already have jobs through Prologis or the Latin Builders Association, just a few of the organizations that have set up pipeline programs in South Florida high schools. 

Interns with construction firm L.F. Jennings at a Washington, D.C., construction site

Since it was founded in 1972, South Florida’s Current Builders has constructed more than 40,000 multifamily units, 15M SF of office/industrial space and 250K SF of retail, including Allegro Senior Living in Parkland and University Pointe in Davie.

Current Builders CEO Chip Reid told Bisnow that, back in 2006, when the real estate market was hot, “We saw what we are seeing now ... a skills gap.”

The company began offering continuing education to its salaried workers. Then in 2007, it started Current Builders University, a free program that helps its employees move up through the ranks and into management. In the last few years, it extended the program to hourly workers in the field, teaching everything from the math needed to calculate supplies to more specific technical skills like concrete design, following a curriculum from the National Center for Construction Education and Research.

A carpenter can become a layout person or crew leader. An assistant superintendent can become a super, and so on. But that wasn’t enough.

“Our field payroll varies from 250 to 400 people,” Reid said.

To keep good recruits coming, at the college level, Current Builders stays involved with the Rinker School of Construction at the University of Florida, from which it often hires. It has donated $250K for scholarships, and Reid is on a committee that periodically helps revise the curriculum.

At the high school level, Current Builders in 2008 started a local branch of ACE (Architecture, Construction and Engineering mentoring). The workers mentor high school juniors and seniors in Broward County. They meet 14 or 15 times a year, and the program includes a signature field trip. Past outings were to Marlins Stadium and the Florida Atlantic University stadium when they were under construction.

Reid said workers advance in the industry with or without a college degree. Given the cost of college today, he finds himself sometimes trying to persuade parents that college isn’t needed.

An entry-level worker might start doing carpentry for $16 an hour, and make $22 an hour in a few years, he said. By the time they are in their 40s, they can be a supervisor or project manager making six figures. He prefers to grow people through the ranks of his company rather than, during busy years, having to turn to a headhunter and end up in bidding wars for talent.

Elaine Liftin, president and executive director of the Council for Educational Change, a nonprofit based in Weston, Fla.

Oleta Partners, the developer of SoLē Mia (the largest project ever in North Miami) , has a partnership with CBT College to offer a free, six-month program to seniors at North Miami Senior High School. Students learn about construction technology, plumbing, HVAC systems and REVIT 3D modeling.

At least 50% of their time is spent doing hands-on training in labs. Upon successful completion of the program, students earn 21 college credits and receive a diploma in Building Construction Technology. As of this fall, 25 students had taken advantage of the program.

Prologis on Friday announced that it, too, is partnering with Miami-Dade County Public Schools to get kids interested in logistics, distribution and transportation — the second phase of a workforce initiative that kicked off in Southern California earlier this year. Prologis is building a Trade and Logistics Lab at Miami Springs Senior High School, which it expects to be up and running by August.

More than 300 students who are enrolled in existing four-year trade programs at five Miami-area high schools will have access to the lab. Prologs will be converting an existing building to simulate an operational warehouse. Students can drive a forklift simulator and get a certification that would allow them to work straight out of high school. Prologis will also have input into the curriculum, make executives available for career days and guidance and help match kids with internships after their junior year.

Prologs South Florida Vice President Scott Gregory said that the move was prompted because, while Prologis is a landlord, it often hears from its tenants — shipping and trucking companies like Amazon, FedEx and DHL — that they have trouble finding qualified workers.

“Logistics involves shipping, ports, trains, air transportation — there’s a ton of coordination involved," Gregory said. "It’s a cool sector that is sometimes misunderstood.”

Despite the headlines about robots taking away jobs, he pointed to a CBRE report that predicted 452,000 warehouse and distribution center workers will be needed this year and next. The need is acute in key markets like Miami, where he said Prologs owns 17M SF of logistics real estate.

The Latin Builders Association has perhaps gotten the biggest jump-start on young recruits. It opened a charter high school in 2012 in partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools. The LBA Construction and Business Management Academy Charter High School in Hialeah Gardens offers high school students the opportunity to earn their diploma, industry certifications and college credits at the same time — and even encourages them to start their own businesses. Students take classes in everything from construction management to marketing, with an emphasis on technology.

“Students become aware of careers and opportunities in the construction industry," said Elaine Liftin, the president and executive director of the Council for Educational Change, who helped find programs at LBA Academy.

The opportunities go far beyond laborers, she said, into design, architecture and real estate law. She said they might take field trips to Home Depot to look at new types of materials and work out pricing for a theoretical job. Her group helps facilitate partnerships between businesses and schools.

“We got a call from a roofer, saying ‘We've got a gazillion jobs available,'" she said. "There was no talent pool from which they could draw.”

Through her program, a business can arrange a series of meetings for industry leaders to come into classrooms and bring students on its work site. She has designed similar programs for bankers, and said that such programs are eye-opening for kids who have sat in classrooms for 12 years and haven’t been exposed to such opportunities.

“We're looking at John Q. Student who sits in high school and really doesn't have a clue in terms of a potential career,” she said.