Our capacity to meet the complex infrastructure needs of an employer—or a prospective one—is one of Northwest Indiana’s great assets. We have about 14,500 skilled
tradesmen who live and work in NWI and it’s estimated that we have 700 or so commercial, industrial, institutional and public works contractors. Some are large general contractors, and they are often teamed with smaller sub-contractors that specialize in niche markets. In combination, they can deliver whatever is needed, regardless of how complex it might be. Although this capacity can clearly influence the success of our economic development efforts, we may be guilty of not recognizing it and promoting it as one of our great regional assets.
This capacity surely was a factor in BP’s decision to invest several billion dollars in its Whiting Refinery Modernization Project. The complexity of this project is only hinted at by the fact that it involved the installation of 380 miles of pipe, 1,200 pieces of major equipment, 600 shop-fabricated modules, and 50,000 tons of steel. Our contractors and their skilled tradesmen were undoubtedly a key factor in its success. If a company is looking at the possibility of establishing or expanding their operations in NWI, they can clearly be confident that we have contractors and skilled tradesman that are amply prepared to meet their construction or maintenance needs whether the job is large or small.
This capacity shouldn’t be taken for granted. There is nationwide concern about the shortage of skilled tradesmen. Manpower Group does an annual Talent Shortage Survey, and the skilled trades have been at the top of their list for seven consecutive years. Our contractors and trade unions have been proactive in dealing with this issue. They fund a network of state-of-the-art apprenticeship centers where skill training is provided as apprentices take classes at IVY Tech toward the Associate Degree they can earn on graduation. Purdue University Northwest provides a pathway for them to subsequently earn their BS Degrees. Statewide, contractors, in partnership with the building trade unions, invest more than $42 million per year in apprenticeship training in Indiana. In our region, that annual investment is about $12 million.
The labor and management representatives of the building and construction industry also jointly contribute about $1.8 million annually to fund the Building & Construction Resource Center. The center, established in 1992, offers a wide range of services to help establish and maintain a workplace free of the destructive effects caused by the use of drugs and alcohol.
There are 20 apprenticeship programs serving NWI, providing opportunities for men and women to prepare for jobs of the future. It’s not widely known that they’re earning an attractive wage while they are learning new skills and earning a degree without incurring debt. And perhaps more significantly, the average annual pay and benefits is about $60,000 for program graduates. As positive as that combination is, there is a shortage of qualified applicants. There are several reasons for that, not the least of which is the emphasis placed on attending a four-year college or university and disdain for “vocational” education. The Indiana Plan Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program was created to help overcome this problem and enhance the diversity of the applicant mix.
The Construction Advancement Foundation (CAF) is another unique partnership between NWI contractors and trade unions. CAF provides a wide variety of professional development programs that are designed to enhance performance and promote business growth. Job safety is one of many areas of emphasis, and this has contributed to construction sites in NWI being nearly 15 times safer than the national average.
As one who has been directly involved with several multimillion-dollar construction projects, I have seen firsthand the great advantage of having contractors in our region who take special pride in they work that they and their tradesmen can do. And I always knew I could call on them day or night if I had the need. That is clearly an economic development advantage for Northwest Indiana. We need to capitalize on it!
LEIGH MORRIS is former mayor of LaPorte and former chairman of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. He and his wife Marcia live in LaPorte.