It's no secret that the construction industry in Nashville is struggling to find workers. Contractors say they have more jobs than they can fill. Some even post "help wanted" signs on their construction sites.
The biggest challenge, industry leaders say, is making the next generation aware of the work and prepared to do it.
On a recent rainy weekday, a few trainers from the Ironworkers Union Local 846 were showing about a dozen young men how to twist strands of metal around iron bars. This creates a steel mesh foundation for reinforced concrete — an under-appreciated but crucial part of the construction process.
"Basically under every crane, there are going to be some workers doing this kind of work," said Garrett Stark, an organizer with the Ironworkers Union. "There's a major, major labor shortage for this kind of worker, so we're trying to get creative about finding people that are interested in this as a career."
In this case, getting creative meant partnering with a faith-based program called 4:13 Strong, which works with young men in Nashville who have been incarcerated and helps them find jobs in the construction industry. The union hopes that some of them will want to become an ironworker after they finish this training.
And if they do, Cary Newton wants to hire them. Newton is the CEO of JD Steel, a contractor based in Phoenix that now has projects in Nashville. Ironworkers are in high demand, he said, especially with the construction boom here.
"A lot of baby boomers are retiring. There's not a lot coming into the industry, and so we're having struggles finding young men to come into the industry," he said.
The biggest reason? Reinforcing steel is grueling work. Workers have to spend a lot of time bent over iron bars and be OK with heavy lifting.
"Our business is not for everybody," Newton said. "Not every one of these guys is going to want to, nor will everyone make it."
But the business does have two big selling points. First, its pay: A reinforcing ironworker in Tennessee makes $22 an hour on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even starting out, you can make $12, said Cortez Jones, a participant in 4:13 Strong.
"That's great, compared to $7.25," he said, which is what he was making at Wendy's before he went to jail, got out and became part of this faith-based program.
Jones is 20 years old now, and he said he just didn't realize before that this kind of job existed.
"I was too busy working the fast food restaurant job, and nobody told me, 'Well, you can go do construction,' " Jones said. "Nashville needs my help to build what they need built."
And that's the other selling point: pride.
The industry tells these men that they are, quite literally, shaping the future of the city. When Jones drives past all the construction sites, he believes it.
"When my kids grow up, I can say, 'I helped build that building right there, and that building,' " he said. "It gives me excitement. It gives me a rush."
Ironworking isn't something Jones wants to do forever. He really wants to be a plumber. But he'll go where the work is, he said. And the construction industry hopes more of his peers do the same.