As reported in the Milwaukee Business Journal; May 8, 2020
Several years ago, contractors and the skilled trades came together to promote quality and strengthen the construction industry. The collaborative effort quickly evolved into a strategic approach to developing partnerships that could increase safety on the job and develop a career pipeline for skilled construction workers. Those efforts gave the industry the capacity it needed for the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons, Fiserv Forum and Foxconn projects, as well as the recent construction of a COVID-19 Alternate Care Facility at Wisconsin State Fair Park. Now, other cities are following Milwaukee’s lead. The Milwaukee Business Journal recently sat down with representatives of the partners who have made this approach successful to discuss how it was done, what it’s doing now, and where it is headed.
Contractors and the skilled trades have a history of working together to provide the training and the skilled workers needed by the construction industry. How is the Building Advantage initiative different from prior approaches?
DAN BUKIEWICZ: Building Advantage’s mission is to show developers and building owners what can be accomplished when contractors and the skilled trades come together to get things done. It broke down the silos that existed between labor and management. Today, it’s working to improve workforce capacity and helping developers and public officials better understand our industry.
MARK KESSENICH: It’s a collaborative, strategic approach that you don’t see in other parts of the country. Take WRTP/BIG STEP. Over the last 10 years, it has evolved from what was basically a tutoring program into a multi-faceted operation that provides pre-apprenticeship training, helps to recruit people into the skilled trades, and responds to public policy issues. We’ve become a robust partner in helping the industry prepare for the future.
ADAM JELEN: I think the primary differentiator is proactive and strong, integrated leadership. We’ve come together as one unified front to truly build sustainable capacity in our industry.
NATHAN JUROWSKI: Our ability to enhance what has already being done is really where Building Advantage’s true value lies. We are a conduit. We talk to the industry stakeholders, and we talk to the developers and owners. We also work on public policy at the city, county and state levels. We coordinate, we partner and we pool resources for strategic initiatives that are good for the industry and the community.
Let’s talk about how Building Advantage is more about building a community and not just building specific projects. How does Building Advantage build the community?
JELEN: Whether it’s the safety training program being developed on Foxconn or the curtain wall assemble and glazing program for Northwestern Mutual, Building Advantage has a track record of building capacity that strengthens and grows the community. We just completed a historic project at State Fair Park. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asked us to design build, on a plus-or-minus 10-day schedule, an alternate care facility for COVID-19 patients. We had hundreds of trade personnel working on the project in 12-hour shifts. Building Advantage prepared us for that mission.
KESSENICH: Building Advantage is about bringing something of value to the community. Our pre-employment program is unmatched. We bring the real deal – real opportunity – to people. We offer a true career pathway.
How did Building Advantage come about and who are the principal players?
KEVIN O’TOOLE: Lyle Balistreri, who preceded Dan at the head of building trades, came up with the idea of bringing labor and management together in a forum that wasn’t principally focused on collective bargaining agreements. As we started down that path, however, we realized that our mission should really be to promote quality, union construction. Building Advantage became our new moniker. When we started, the concept of workforce development wasn’t being talked about. RPP (Residents Preference Program) didn’t exist. But as the industry was approached with these challenges, Building Advantage was nimble enough to quickly address them.
Talk a little more about the partnerships that have been created.
KESSENICH: Partnering is key to what we do. Our role at WRTP/BIG STEP is something similar to a United Nations interpreter. I have to be able to talk to technical colleges, K-12 schools, elected officials, and the community. Everybody kind of gets what we are doing, but I have to translate things so they get that “aha” moment and understand how they can plug into the effort.
JELEN: We are continually building partnerships. During phase one of the Potawatomi Hotel, we developed a strategic partnership with OSHA and the skilled trades. We achieved some amazing results including limiting ladder use, which was really at the forefront among safety at the time. We brought what we learned at Potawatomi to the Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons project, where there was an unprecedented scale for workforce development which required doing something innovative like deploying a fabrication shop for the curtain wall. Who would think of assembling and glazing curtain wall with 100-percent unemployed and underemployed workers on one of the most monumental buildings in Milwaukee’s history? But it was done, and with a high level of success, because of the partnerships we developed. We just finished the second tower at Potawatomi with another great partnership that focused on a case study with silica standards. All of these partnerships were possible because of the chassis that has been created by Building Advantage and WRTP/BIG STEP.
O’TOOLE: A lot of changes have been driven by public project requirements. Back when we built the convention center in the late 1990s, everyone was grappling with the concept of MBEs (minority business enterprises). Look how it has evolved since then. Today, we are drilling down to individual workers through the RPP.