Stephanie Miller was living in Texas with her young children when, one night, her husband came home drunk again. She knew what was likely to happen next.
“He was pretty abusive when he drank,” she recalled. “My solution to not get my ass beat was to grab a knife.”
Her then-husband called the police, and pretty soon Miller was facing charges. She landed in prison when she violated her probation. Then, when she was released, she fell into another abusive relationship and ended up back in jail.
“Being locked up, that sparked a flame for me to want to operate,” she said. That is, to operate cranes.
Miller was looking for a fresh start when she relocated to Denver. She was trained as a nurse but, “With the charge,” she said, “all aspects of that were out the window.”
Instead she found a new path in construction, an industry currently clamoring for workers — and one that’s traditionally welcomed people with similar pasts. Today, you’ll find her at work on a Mortensen construction site operating a crane. She’s perhaps one of the only women in that position in the state.
“My life has done a complete 180 since then,” she said. “I worked my ass off to get there.”
The 2008 recession left a deep dent on the industry.
In Denverite’s wide-ranging tour of job sites over the last few months, one contractor after another said that skilled trades are hurting for qualified employees. Big projects languish as they wait for electricians or HVAC installers to make their way down long lists of work orders. Small contractors say they’ve had to pass on opportunities because they don’t have enough manpower to take on new jobs.
According to Census data, construction in Colorado lost more than 50,000 employees between 2007 and 2009, many of those between 25 and 54 years old. A decade later, those numbers have finally rebounded.
“Construction has just outpaced all other industry in terms of growth, employment growth, over the last four, five years,” said Ryan Gedney, senior economist with the Colorado Department of Labor.
But construction is an aging industry, he said, and that resurgence of workers might not last long.
“We have fewer young people working in construction than say they did 10-15 years ago,” and this poses a “longer-term, systemic problem,” even as demand for those services in the city remains high.
There’s been a renewed push among industry advocates to onboard new, young workers.
They’re looking in some places where they weren’t looking before.
In April, the Denver Institute for Faith & Work, a religious organization focusing on the workforce, held a discussion event meant to raise these issues and promote initiatives that might bring new workers onto job sites.
“How do we recover the dignity and worth of people working in the industry today?” asked Jeff Haanen, the Institute’s founder. There’s a stigma, he said, that’s kept younger workers from entering the field. “These are the people who built America.”
Among the presenters was Josh Geppelt, a member of the Denver Rescue Mission’s Senior Leadership Team. Geppelt shared about a program that helps homeless and addicted people find jobs and, ultimately, attain housing.
Construction, he told Denverite, is “becoming more and more popular with men who are seeking employment.”
Next to him was Scott Flores, founder of The Master’s Apprentice, a program that steers young people into skilled trades and away from potentially bad situations.
“These are diamonds in the rough. They got rough edges,” Flores said to the crowd. “Most of the kids that we work with are looking for a break.”
Breaks, as it happens, abound.
Katrina Wert, a director at the Community College of Denver’s Center for Workforce Initiatives, also made an appearance on one of the Denver Institute for Faith & Work’s panels.
“It is an industry that I think is easy for people to access,” she told Denverite. “Given the current economy, many employers are willing to go outside their traditional hiring channels.”
There’s a continued interest among construction hirers to keep the doors open to anyone willing to put in a hard day’s work.
“If they have that desire to get ahead and they’re coachable, than they can go anywhere,” Flores said. “They have tremendous potential.”
Construction isn’t the only industry trying to keep doors open.
Jack Regenbogen is an attorney and policy advocate for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, which focuses on the re-entry population, among other things. He said construction isn’t alone in experiencing worker shortages.
At a recent career fair for the formerly incarcerated, he said, “Construction companies were well represented, but they weren’t alone.”
The hospitality industry, he said, also showed up in force.
Two bills passed through the legislature this session that aimed to give people with criminal histories a fair shot at employment. Both, House Bill 1418 and House Bill 1344, are awaiting approval from the Governor.
The efforts are both part of a push to “ban the box,” Regenbogen said, or remove criminal history sections from job applications.
The idea “isn’t to prevent that consideration but to delay it,” he said, to “give applicants the opportunity to get the interview,” and then let employers weigh their histories.
While some jobs like nursing or childcare appropriately screen for criminal backgrounds, “For most jobs, if somebody has made a mistake in the past,”Regenbogen said, “theres no reason for excluding them.”
Kedmia Milam, a field operations coordinator for Mortenson, Miller’s employer, said they’ve long excluded that criminal history checkbox from their job applications.
“It’s not something that I would ever ask,” she said.
Across the board, the people we met on construction sites across Denver said their industry is one that people can enter without much experience and achieve financial stability.
In the face of a worker shortage, the industry is beginning to look at places like the Rescue Mission, but people like Stephanie Miller have always had a place under a hard hat.
“Historically and currently this is an industry that has been very friendly to the re-entry population,” Wert said.
Miller said she’s proud of her position. She likes what she does, she can see the progress she makes each day on site. And she has her eyes fixed skyward: for higher pay at the top of a tower crane.