Travis Slisher, far right, senior project manager with Neuworks Mechanical, goes over a plan set with students from Rocky Mountain High School’s career class at the Copperleaf Apartments construction site in Fort Collins on Sept. 15. Neuworks Mechanical’s outreach program hosts one career class per quarter to help give students a better understanding of the trade skill industry. Joel Blocker / For BizWest

Boom creates labor shortage: Neuworks Mechanical part of solution

The complaint voiced by virtually all construction firms in Northern Colorado and the Boulder Valley is the same. Finding qualified labor challenges them all, slows projects, and prevents companies from taking on more projects during the current growth boom.

The plumbing sector, in particular, has been hit significantly. With most of the state’s development occurring along the Front Range, skilled and certified plumbing companies in the region are stretched desperately thin. One Fort Collins company is trying to change all that.

Neuworks Mechanical, located in the industrial Airpark District of the city, is taking an innovative approach to recruiting employees. The company is reaching out to kids.

Neuworks staff make appearances at high school and middle school career events. They also give presentations about the plumbing industry to students, which include hands-on activities with plumbing materials. Neuworks also hosts student field trips to construction sites.

“When people hear the word plumber, they think of a messy old guy fixing a toilet, or something gross like that,” said Jackie Sindelar, project coordinator at Neuworks. “There is a huge disconnect between the stereotype and what plumbing really is.”

Sindelar said Neuwork’s mission is to show young students, and adults who are in dead-end jobs, that a fulfilling and lucrative career can be had in plumbing. After a certain amount of training (which is on the job, and paid), plumbers can make $70,000 a year, and eventually, more than $100,000. A plumbing career not only pays well, those in the industry are on the front lines of innovation in the industry.

“We’re trying to attract the younger generation by the technology piece,” said Neuworks Senior Project Manager Travis Slishaer, who regularly gives school presentations. “Kids have no idea of what plumbing and heating is. When I ask kids in the classrooms who knows about plumbing, most of their knowledge is limited to knowing what a toilet is.”

Slishaer likens the disconnect similar to the disconnect most people have with food — not knowing where it comes from. With students, Slishaer said once they learn where water comes from, how it travels through a building and the excavating equipment used during a project, many students report that plumbing has piqued their interest.

“We like to tell them it’s like playing with Legos, with a few more rules,” he said.

“There’s such little coverage about how successful people can be in the trade industries,” he said. “It’s a piece that needs to be solved in order to see growth and progression.”

The shortage of workers in construction trades and the manufacturing industry is impacting industries that are a critical part of Colorado’s future growth, according to Colorado’s Department of Labor and Employment. Though private and government-funded programs and initiatives have been put in place, the real problem is a preconceived image of these occupations. For older generations, an occupation in the trades, manufacturing or transportation had always been a point of pride. Today, there is a perception that the route to a rewarding career must start at a university.

Even so, the department forecasts growth in the construction industry. In 2016, there were 155,142 construction workers in the state. That number is predicted to increase to 208,126 by 2026, which is a 34.2 percent increase by 2026, and a yearly increase of 3 percent.

By region, Fort Collins and Loveland will see an increase of 10,355 construction workers by 2026. Greeley will see 9,215. Boulder and Longmont will see 5,355.

Employment of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters is projected to grow 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations. Construction of buildings that need new plumbing systems should drive demand for these workers. Overall job opportunities are expected to be good, with some employers continuing to report difficulty finding qualified workers, the department reports.

As of Sept. 19, there were 113 online job posting for plumbers in Colorado. In August, there were 184 job postings. Two percent of the job postings required a high school diploma and 96 percent did not specify that any educational certificate or degree was required. Less than 1 percent required an associate’s degree.

The estimated mean annual wage for plumbers with zero to two years of experience in Colorado is $49,609, or $23.10 an hour. In Boulder, it’s $53,506.  In Fort Collins and Loveland, it’s $48,291, and in Greeley it’s $47,816.

Community outreach

While creating strategies to bring new employees into the fold, Neuworks also implements other outreach programs to educate and connect with the community.

Neuworks installed an electric car charging station, initially to power its office car. The station has two ports, so in an effort to be of service to the surrounding Airpark community, the charging station is available to the public to use at no charge.

“Installing the charging station falls in line with our vision of community and wanting to preserve the environment,” Sindelar said. “We take the environment very seriously.”

In another community outreach effort, Neuworks is developing a program geared toward women — Teaching Chicks to Fix — to begin in the coming months; the exact dates have not been set.

“We’re going to teach women how to change and install plumbing fixtures around the house, how to fix a toilet, how to save some money,” Sindelar said. “So, they don’t have to rely on anyone else.”

A stereotype redefined

Neuworks showcases a trendy office in a remodeled gymnasium, complete with a kegerator, ping-pong and pool tables, and a living room with a TV. The building includes many energy efficient features. Neuworks provides a bicycle library for employees to use at lunchtime or to run work errands throughout the day. Many employees also ride their bikes to work. The company has been awarded the bronze level from the League of American Bicyclists for bicycle-friendly workplaces.

“We’re actively working up to higher standards, though,” Sindelar said.

On the property are two warehouses and a manufacturing facility, excavating machines, trailers and trucks for hauling. Notable recent projects include the Foundry in Loveland, Greeley Memory Care and Peakview Trails apartment complex, also in Greeley. The company also provides maintenance services to commercial and residential customers.

“Not only do we have a group of core plumbers, but an entire company structure, enough diversity within the company so that we can sustain those divisions within the company,” Slishaer said. “Employees are exposed to all aspects of construction—excavation, pre-fabrication, design and technology. We build as much as we can in our facility before going to the job site.”