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NASCC 2024

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AISC’s Workforce Zone Brings High-Tech, Hands-On Approach to Solving Labor Shortage

The exhibit hall floor at the 2024 NASCC: The Steel Conference in San Antonio was full of fabrication equipment and tools. Participants--and potential steel fabricators--who wanted to see how some are used could start by visiting a 78-ft trailer parked right on the show floor.


The Be Pro Be Proud virtual workshop trailer returned this year as the centerpiece of AISC’s Workforce Zone, a steel-building playground that introduced conference participants to every piece of a fabricator’s job and showcased engagement ideas for those recruiting for careers in architecture, engineering, and construction, specifically in the skilled trades.



The most enthusiastic visitors, though, were about 100 Career and Technical Education (CTE) students from San Antonio who stopped by on the conference’s final day for a program called "Forge Your Future." They had a chance to connect with the entirety of the structural steel industry and consider a career in steel.


That connection appeared to be strong. Students competed to get the best score on the virtual welding machine, gathered around classmates operating a crane simulator, and laughed through their trial-and-error attempts on the machines. They also learned how to measure steel members and talked with Nucor representatives about the industry.


The students left having experienced all pieces of the Workforce Zone, which aimed to create enthusiasm for joining the trade industry—specifically in steel fabrication—and help correct a growing supply and demand problem. The construction industry will need to surpass its average hiring pace by 501,000 additional workers to meet the demand for labor, according to Associated Builders and Contractors.


Attracting a younger workforce to offset a growing number of retiring tradespeople is a crucial piece of combatting the shortage. Those efforts start with challenging perceptions attached to working in construction and the trades so the next generation sees it as a promising career rather than a fallback option.


“[Perception challenges] are usually not with the kids, but with their parents,” said Kevin Traynor, president and COO of JGM Fabricators and Constructors. “We try to do outreach to the parents as well. If we interview a high school kid or take one on a tour, we ask them to bring a parent and see how they can build a career.”


The student tours and trailer visits involve more than just a virtual step into a skilled trade job. The students learned about the salary potential and the path to management in the trades--two essential pieces of a successful pitch. Both have previously left students pleasantly surprised and refuted some assumptions, said Andrew Parker, Be Pro Be Proud’s executive director.


“Be Pro Be Proud’s mission is to change the perception students, parents, and teachers have of skilled professions and the manufacturing, transportation, construction, and utility sectors,” Parker said. “We hope a student will come on board the truck, explore the simulations, hear the message, look at the content, see what opportunities look like, and pay attention.”


Students weren’t the only ones experiencing the Workforce Zone--it was open to all Steel Conference attendees, as well. Steel-related, hands-on engagement stations staffed by AISC and other exhibitors who make steel components surrounded the trailer. Attendees could try bolt installation, snap in magnetic welds, and learn how to identify a member's size through measurement and some simple math. They could compete against other attendees in a virtual welding competition and take a virtual reality tour of a steel mill.


The Be Pro Be Proud trailer had virtual-reality simulators where participants can practice welding, drive a truck, operate a robotic arm, drive an excavator, and more.


“We’re always looking for ways to train and bring kids into the trades and see what other people are doing,” Traynor said after a stop at the Workforce Zone. “The best way to learn is by getting all the smart people together and figuring out what everybody is doing to get people into the trades. Simulators are a great next step.


“If you can get simulators into high schools and grade schools and let kids see how to be a welder, equipment operator, or a driver—that’s great and where we all have to start as an industry.”



All conference participants could learn something from the Workforce Zone—even steel fabricators. AISC’s forthcoming Fabricator Education Program training module was stationed at the front of the Workforce Zone. The hands-on activities and engagement can serve as an educational springboard for local talent outreach efforts and integrate as a piece of fabricators’ own workforce development programs. These activities capitalized on the benefits of experiential learning, putting the architecture, engineering, and construction industries at a distinct advantage over other careers.



Providing these hands-on introductory experiences to a fabricator’s local Career and Technical Education (CTE) students can build and strengthen community partnerships. A workforce development program has a limited reach if it doesn’t effectively connect with and educate the future workforce. Many fabricators have partnerships with local trade schools, but they can effectively reach beyond them to a more general audience with the right approach. And successful outreach and recruitment of new labor goes beyond convincing the potential worker that the trade industry is a viable career path.


The Workforce Zone also included a sign-up station for BlueRecruit, a job platform that can help steel industry employers find the right talent by connecting tradespeople with their next step or first step into the industry. Those employers are actively seeking help and looking everywhere to find it.


“It’s at a crisis level for our needs and other steel fabricators’ needs,” said Amy Rogers, W&W | AFCO senior vice president for bridge sales. “We can’t just say we’ll talk to local high schools, talk to vocational-technical schools, or have relationships with professors. We need to hit it at all angles, outline options, and tell them this is a path to be proud of.”


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