MILWAUKEE — As the demand for construction builds in Milwaukee, the region is tight on its construction labor market, according to a new study from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Large, high-profile projects continue to flood the streets of Milwaukee, including a $456 million expansion of the downtown convention center, construction of the 44-story Couture residential tower near the lakefront, a new chemistry building on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s campus and a 31-story apartment building in the Historic Third Ward, to name a few. The city’s expedited development is creating jobs and boosting the economy, the Wisconsin Policy Forum found. Milwaukee, it seems, is constantly changing its skyline. As more projects squeeze their way into city streets, the need for construction workers rises, too.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum reported construction employment in the metro area is stable, actually increasing throughout the pandemic. Accordingly, unemployment in construction is at a near historic low in the area, and job-openings are at a 20-year high.

But it’s unclear if those openings can all be filled. For many years, the construction workforce in Milwaukee was growing. Right now, Milwaukee has the largest apprentice pool it’s seen since 2000, and most construction unions predicted their apprentice classes will continue to grow.

Even so, five area construction unions reported a significant decrease in apprentices. Three of those unions said they do not have enough workers ready to start an apprenticeship to replace construction workers who will likely retire in the near future. Four of the unions surveyed said 25% or more of their active members were in their 50s. Another four unions said more than 10% of their workers were over 60 years old.

About half of the unions included in this study said they had fewer workers available for new projects — most of their construction workers were already employed — than they did before the pandemic. Furthermore, active union construction workers are working more hours on average compared to a decade ago.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum said long-term demand for construction workers in Milwaukee is not set in stone, but noted industry leaders should boost recruitment efforts. It even suggested “increased technical education opportunities in schools and new approaches to recruiting and retaining young workers.” The Wisconsin Policy Forum noted general demographic trends in this finding. For instance, more baby boomers are retiring, but the birth rate continues to fall.

In order to maintain a younger pipeline of construction workers in the area, the study pointed to increasing diversity efforts.

“Despite the growing diversity of metro Milwaukee’s population, limited progress has been made in diversifying the construction workforce. Hispanic representation among area apprentices has increased considerably, but Black and female workers remain highly underrepresented and more than half of Black workers cancel their apprenticeships before completion,” the Wisconsin Policy Forum said.

The city of Milwaukee’s Residents Preference Program currently requires that 40% of the hours spent building a public works project — or a subset of private development projects supported by city funds — must be completed by qualifying city residents. The study said that in addition to the tight labor market, projects that fall under the RPP program can have a difficult time employing enough qualifying workers.

Read the full report below: 

BuiltToLast_FullReport by Aly Prouty


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