Built to Last?

The State of Metro Milwaukee's Construction Workforce

January 2023


Video Summary

The Milwaukee area continues to experience a steady flow of large, high-profile development projects, including the $456 million expansion of the downtown convention center, construction of the 44-story Couture residential tower near the lakefront, a new chemistry building on UWM’s East Side campus, and a 31-story apartment building in the Historic Third Ward. Several additional large projects recently have been announced, and numerous mid-sized projects also are underway or planned in the downtown area and beyond.

While this strong pace of development activity will change the city’s skyline and produce benefits throughout the regional economy, it has raised questions as to whether the region has enough construction workers to meet current and upcoming demand. Certain projects also carry targeted hiring requirements often connected to the city’s Residents Preference Program, which is designed to ensure that a portion of the jobs produced by city-supported construction projects are filled by qualifying city residents. Long-term concerns have been raised that the pipeline of new construction workers may not be sufficient to replace those expected to retire in the coming years.

In this report, we seek to shed light on these challenges. Our analysis is guided by the following key research questions:

  • Is the current supply of construction workers and the pipeline of new workers in metro Milwaukee strong enough to meet the demand for labor in the next several years?
  • How are the demographics (age, race/ethnicity, gender) of metro Milwaukee’s construction workforce changing over time?
  • Are workforce challenges greater in some construction trades than others?
  • Are current efforts to recruit and retain construction workers in metro Milwaukee sufficient, including those who qualify for the city of Milwaukee’s Residents Preference Program (RPP)?

To help answer these questions, we collected and analyzed data from numerous sources, including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Milwaukee Department of Public Works and Office of Equity and Inclusion, Building Trades United Pension Trust Fund, and WRTP|BIG STEP. We complement these data sources with information and insight gathered through a survey of Milwaukee area construction labor unions and a series of interviews with area construction contractors and industry leaders.

As development and infrastructure projects continue to transform downtown Milwaukee and the broader city and metro area, we hope this analysis assists leaders across sectors who are working to cultivate and fortify the region’s current and future construction workforce.