It had been about four years since Kent Wirges of Janke Plumbing had enough work to hire an apprentice.
Now that construction jobs have picked up, Wirges has signed on six new trainees, wants more, and is helping to develop an internship program that reaches into new and younger circles to replenish a workforce that thinned out when the real estate market collapsed.
“We're rebuilding,” Wirges said. “I want to take advantage of the opportunity, with the amount of work out there, to rebuild from the ground up.”
Janke Plumbing is not the only business competing for skilled labor. Trucking, manufacturing and building trades overall are seeking to beef up their ranks after a construction slump and the Great Recession forced layoffs and redirected many to other jobs.
Baby boomers' retirements and more commercial construction projects in the pipeline also are feeding demand for skilled laborers who saw some of their highest unemployment rates during the recession.
Kirk Ahrends, dean of Applied Technology at Metropolitan Community College, said instructors who teach 16 different trade professions get more requests for job candidates than they have graduates.
“They're knocking on the door,” he said. “Not only the students, but the industries. They're saying, 'Get us some graduates.' ”
Terry Moore, longtime president of the Omaha Federation of Labor, predicts that demand for construction workers will only increase in the near future.
“We will have a building boom in our city to the year 2020,” Moore said. “There's a multitude of project areas that show extreme growth.”
He cited projects in and around Aksarben Village, including the new University of Nebraska at Omaha sports arena, and the University of Nebraska Medical Center's new cancer treatment and research center, which he said will create work for at least 5,000 construction workers.
“With that type of expansion, you will see hotels, condominiums, apartments and businesses flourish,” Moore said. “The nice part about that is it will take years to bring about, which guarantees constant growth in our inner city.”
Labor union officials are responding with bigger apprenticeship classes and recruitment strategies that include a deeper reach into high schools.
To satisfy an immediate need, though, local labor unions have turned to outsiders.
Called “travelers,” electricians, steamfitters or other union craftsmen from out of town bring their expertise and sometimes their families to Omaha, where they attach to a contractor in need of hired hands.
Local 22 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for example, has tapped 250 travelers from states including Florida, Tennessee and California, said Gary Kelly, business manager. That's on top of about 1,400 Omaha area-based members who today are at full employment but during the recession had about a 30 percent unemployment rate.
“Our outlook here for the next nine months is very positive,” Kelly said. He anticipates at least doubling, if not tripling, the number of travelers during the next year.
The last notable influx of out-of-towners occurred in 2008, he said, when a Council Bluffs project beckoned 600 union electricians to the area.
Such work-plentiful times — buoyed by big data center construction projects — also give his union leaders an edge in recruiting members, Kelly said. “It's times of full employment that allow us to go out and organize the unorganized.”
The more than enough jobs in certain trades — including ironwork and steamfitting — contrast with bleaker years after the housing market crash, when as many as 50 percent of some construction unions were sidelined, said Mike Baker, president of the Omaha and Southwest Iowa Building and Construction Trades Council.
Baker, also the business manager for Ironworkers Local 21, said his 600-member union took on 45 students this year for its apprenticeship program that calls for four years of schooling and on-the-job training in preparation for a journeyman license. From 2008 to 2011, the union took on no new apprentice classes because the workload was so low.
“It's hard to take new guys in when you have a bench full of people sitting there waiting for a job,” Baker said.
This September, the electricians union will start a class of 50 in its five-year apprenticeship program, up from 12 students last year. “That's how much it's turned around within a year,” Kelly said.
The union just started a career academy with Omaha Public Schools that is designed to lure teens to the electrical trade. About 25 Benson High juniors will start a two-year introductory curriculum that can feed into the union's formal apprentice program.
Yet another tactic to strengthen the ranks came from the electricians' international headquarters. New classifications were created to allow certain qualified candidates an alternative to the traditional apprenticeship.
A combined effort between the electricians, ironworkers and steamfitters unions also had professionals teaching a course at Boys Town to get kids revved up about a career in the skilled trades. Baker said such interaction typically wins over some candidates who otherwise are scared off by labor-intensive duties of an ironworker.
“It's all about the dollar in the end,” he said, adding that a young licensed ironworker typically earns about $26 an hour but with overtime could rack up a six-digit annual income.
Mark Ondracek, business manager for the Steamfitters and Plumbers Local 464, said of his union: “Everybody is working and happy.” He said the local this year accepted nearly 30 new apprentices for its five-year training program, twice the number of last year.
He said commercial projects, including data centers with a lot of cooling requirements, are driving recent demand for steamfitters. “It appears we have work stacked up for us at least for the next couple of years.”
Meanwhile, the 450-member Plumbers Local 16 is near full employment, said business manager Pat Leddy. A dozen students were accepted into the union's apprentice training program this year, the same as last year. For two consecutive years before that, however, the union hadn't accepted new apprentices.
Judging from enrollment at Metropolitan Community College, welders are among the skilled laborers most in demand. Ahrends said classes for an associate degree in that field currently run from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Truck drivers also are in demand, he said.
And companies want electricians and utility line workers so badly, Ahrends said, that Metro has created a fast-track curriculum to squeeze classes into one year rather than two. “Industry wants them out there and students want to get out there.”
Kent Wirges is the president of Janke Plumbing, a non-union shop that is rebuilding after cutting back from 75 to 45 workers during the recession. In addition to hiring six apprentices, he is working with Jim Coyle, director of employment for Nebraska's Vocational Rehabilitation Office to develop a program targeting high school students with mild learning disabilities who could be trained as plumbers. They eventually could earn a non-union journeyman wage of $25 to $32, not including benefits.
Coyle said similar internship programs have been started for high school seniors interested in trades that include heating and air-conditioning and manufacturing.
Among Janke Plumbing's new apprentices is Lucas Benes, a recent high school graduate from Gretna. The 18-year-old knew he wanted to work with his hands and applied for a summer job at Janke as a laborer. Wirges liked his work ethic and, within a few months, offered to put him through a multiyear apprenticeship program that involves night classes and daytime on-the-job training in preparation for a journeyman license.
This past week, Benes was digging ditches and helping Garrett Wirges and other Janke plumbers at a Bellevue apartment complex renovation job. Garrett Wirges, 22, said the anxiety he had about his chosen profession during the construction slump has faded.
Benes, who was throwing the discus for his high school track team during the worst of it, said he is looking forward to his plumber paychecks.
“I think things are looking great,” Benes said. “We seem to have tons of work.”