What Miller Electric is Doing Today to Encourage More Young People to Consider a Career in the Trades Industries in Omaha

On February 2, several Miller Electric employees partnered with other area Trades industry professionals and educators at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha Campus to give more than 70 local students an opportunity to gain hands on exposure to carpentry, welding, plumbing and electrical work. It’s just one of the many ways Miller Electric actively works to encourage a steady supply of skilled workers in the trades industries here in Omaha.

“It’s no secret that nationwide, there is a shortage of trained folks in the construction industries,” says Miller Electric Safety Director Scott Love. “We’ve been doing what we can for years to encourage more people to get interested in the trades. If we don’t, there’s going to be a shortage of qualified people to do the skilled work that Omaha and western Iowa businesses need.”

How Miller Electric is Bringing Back ‘Dirty Jobs’
We’ve written here in the past about what Miller Electric is doing to bring dirty jobs back to Omaha. Some of those year-round efforts include:

• Miller Internship Program
• Undergraduate Tours of Miller Electric
• School Presentations
• Career Academy & Career Fairs
• Cub Scout Demonstrations
• ACE Mentor Program

Today, we want to highlight the ACE Mentor Program, the positive impact it is making in Omaha and why we support it.

Preparing the Next Generation of Skilled Laborers
The ACE Mentor is a national program that introduces high school students to the wide range of career opportunities available in architecture, construction, engineering and related areas of the building design and construction industry. It engages students through weekly meetings where student teams at area high schools work directly with mentors who are professionals employed in the trades industries.

These mentors volunteer their time to teach students how to design hypothetical projects, tour local construction sites and gain hands on experience in the architecture, construction and engineering fields.

Miller Electric became involved in the ACE Mentor Program when Omaha ACE Chairman Mike McMeekin, who is also the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Civil Engineering firm Lamp Rynearson, reached out to Miller Electric Executive Vice President Jason Tagge to become involved in the program’s Construction Trades Days. Over the past two years, a meaningful connection has formed between our two organizations.

“Miller Electric has been an integral part of our construction trades days,” says McMeekin. “They help us plan out these days and participate in them as mentors in the electrical field. They exemplify the type of industry support we need to make our efforts meaningful because they show students how fulfilling it can be to pursue a career in the trades.”

Program Formation Spurred by a Need for Economic Inclusion
Mike McMeekin led the formation of the ACE Mentor Program in Omaha in late 2015, after it became clear that greater economic inclusion was needed in the entire construction industry.

“Omaha then had and continues to have today a lot of infrastructure-related work going on. Two major initiatives – the City of Omaha Combined Sewer Overflow Program (CSO) and the Omaha Public Schools Capital Facilities Bond program revealed a need for greater economic inclusion of all areas of our community in our ongoing construction projects,” he says. “We knew as a company that we needed to do what we could to address this issue and decided that youth outreach gave us the greatest potential to make the largest, positive impact on our community.”

McMeekin and others at Lamp Rynearson realized that getting young people interested in pursuing careers in the architecture, construction and engineering industries was necessary if Omaha was truly to diversify its construction trades workforce.

Community-Approach Fueled Interest
“We knew it would be most effective to approach this opportunity from an industry-wide perspective, rather than working only on our own as an individual firm,” says McMeekin. “That’s when I thought of ACE Mentor as a possibility for Omaha. It includes all the aspects of our industry with national guidelines and a framework to follow.”

McMeekin reached out to his contacts in the industry and found common interest in the idea. Only a year and a half later, 105 students and 52 mentors are registered in the Omaha ACE Mentor Program. Schools involved for the 2017-18 school year include:

• Benson High School
• Burke High School
• Creighton Preparatory School
• Northwest High School
• Omaha North
• Omaha South
• The Omaha Public Schools Career Center
• Westside High School

The program takes a two-track approach to expose these students to the construction industry and encourage them to pursue jobs in those fields here in Omaha.

1. Teams of six to ten students are paired with four or more mentors and meet on a weekly basis for 16 weeks at their high schools to learn how to design and construct a building project. This year, students are working with their mentors to prepare a plan for a restaurant concept that they eventually present to an audience of mentors and educators. All teams receive feedback from their evaluators. Student participants are also eligible for scholarships funded by ACE Mentor to pursue higher education in construction-related fields.

2. Three ‘Construction Trades Days’ are held throughout the year where additional mentors provide hands on instruction to students in the construction trades, including construction of a storage shed and other trade-specific labs.

OPS Encourages Student Participation from Various High School Institutes
The goal of the ACE mentoring approach, says OPS Director of Economic Inclusion and Vice Chairman Omaha ACE Affiliate Karlus Cozart, is to expose students to the construction trades and hopefully encourage some of them to work in those careers here in Omaha.

“Nationwide and here in Omaha, there’s a shortage of architects and engineers as well as plumbers, carpenters and other skilled laborers,” Cozart says. “We aim to show students that those can be fun, well-paying jobs that they can acquire the technical skills to perform here in Omaha.”

Cozart became involved in ACE after learning about it at a local ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) meeting. After 24 years of active-duty service in the military and work as a trained mechanical engineer and construction project manager in the private sector, he noticed a shortage of minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) related careers and was concerned about turning that trend around.

“As the Director of Economic Inclusion, I have two primary roles, both of which involve creating opportunities – for small engineering businesses to participate in the capital facilities bond program, and for students to participate in STEM-related activities. Both in that role and as an African American professional, I am personally passionate about encouraging more minority participation in the STEM fields, so when I was approached about ACE, I was instantly on board.”

Mike McMeekin credits OPS’ active involvement in encouraging students to participate in the ACE Mentor program as one of the fundamental reasons for the high engagement that they are seeing. Cozart added, “participation prepares students for positive futures and career success.”

“The key to us getting off the ground is the positive support from local businesses and the support and relationships we have with OPS as well as other educational institutes from high school on up, including several local colleges. All of these community stakeholders are fully engaged in getting students to participate in the program,” he says. “It’s through their leadership and staff getting us the right contacts in the high schools and getting the word out to students that we are having success.”

Working Together for the Long Haul
All parties involved agree that the direct payoff of their efforts is a long-term one; infusing the trade industries in Omaha with a diverse, enthusiastic supply of skilled laborers will take time.

“The thinking is that you need to get kids thinking about this in middle school if you want to capture them in the right types of classes and clubs when they reach high school,” says McMeekin.

One of ACE’s goals for the coming year aligns well with one of Miller Electric’s goals in terms of community outreach. Both want to increase their participation in career days at local middle schools.

“Miller Electric made presentations to six middle school classes at Beveridge Magnet Middle School during its Career Day activities last year,” says Scott Love. “We want to do more of that as well as interacting with local Cub Scout troops through the Local 22 and the OJEATC Program to encourage more students to think about construction jobs as an alternative to or in conjunction with a college education.”

Supporting the development of a highly trained, educated and skilled workforce capable of supplying the labor needed to support infrastructure and manufacturing projects in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa is something Miller Electric views as essential to its culture.

“We don’t just work here. We live here and want to see our community thrive for generations to come,” says Love. “Our involvement with ACE is an outflow of that commitment.”