Training High School Students for Jobs in Construction

Trade groups, governments and schools join forces to develop a future workforce.

Right now some 500,000 skilled construction jobs sit open, with no qualified workers to fill them. And the problem won’t abate anytime soon. “Judging by the economy’s growth, the demand is just going to grow, and if you add a $1 trillion infrastructure package, then you’re just piling up even more,” said Mike Glavin, director of workforce development policy and programs at the Associated of Builders and Contractors.

The shortage is affecting not only construction companies but state and local economies as well. As a result, trade education is beginning to get new attention, and respect, thanks to efforts by governments and trade groups to interest young people in construction careers.

“Workers are retiring and there’s far less coming in than leaving,” said Glavin. “The scales are off, and it’s that high school pipeline that we need to widen.”

Shifting the “college-first” mindset

Widening the pipeline involves shifting the “college-first” mentality common in many school systems (not to mention families). Glavin said school administrators are becoming more enthusiastic about partnering with trade groups to develop schooling choices that don’t preclude trade careers.

In addition, with workforce shortages holding back economic growth, Glavin said some city and state governments are looking to change policies that reinforce “college first.”

Take Louisiana for example. Like the rest of the nation, the state needs traditional construction workers, and also trade workers in the petrol chemical industries. The lack of employees was holding back the economy. In response, companies in the state worked with Louisiana politicians to change the way high schools are rewarded for dual enrollment. Previously, schools improved their performance metrics when students earned college credits by taking classes at a local college. Now they improve their metrics when students succeed at classes taken at technical schools, too.

“It’s not that school administrators were opposed to sending them to these programs, but their schools were measured on certain things that got the priority. They flipped that on its head and now measure everything equally,” said Glavin.

Students spend mornings in their core classes and afternoons at a trade education program. They earn certifications from The National Center for Construction Education and Research in trades like welding or carpentry and graduate high school ready to jump into well-paying entry-level trade jobs.

“Workers are retiring and there’s far less coming in than leaving. The scales are off, and it’s that high school pipeline that we need to widen.”

Mike Glavin, ABC director of workforce development policy and programs

Rebranding vo-tech

In honor of its new standing, “vocational education,” or “vo-tech,” has been rebranded “career and technical education.” California is spending millions to expand and improve CTE programs at its community college system, and last year it even launched a $6 million campaign aimed at shining up the reputation of CTE.

Washington State’s auditor would like to see his state more vigorously embrace CTE for high school students. In December he issued a report recommending actions to improve their access to technical education courses.

According to the report, “Students can shorten the path to a good job after graduating from high school by taking career and technical education (CTE) courses that align with courses offered at community and technical colleges or through apprenticeships. However, this performance audit found that many high school students are not given the information or courses necessary to take advantage of these options.”

AGC and ABC: Key trade group players

Construction trade groups are also involved in encouraging high school trade education.

For example, the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin started the Architecture/Construction/Engineering (ACE) Academy in 2005, working with one high school to provide technical education alongside traditional academic learning.  ACE Academy has since expanded to six schools and will open a seventh next year. Graduates earn a certificate from the ACE Career Academy and may pursue apprenticeship programs or continue their construction-related education at a technical college or  university.

Nearly 500 students have graduated from the schools and 80 enrolled this year, according to Jeff Roach, AGC Wisconsin director of marketing and industry outreach. About 40 percent of students from each class go directly into the workforce, while another 40 percent head to a two- or four-year college seeking a degree in construction management or engineering, Roach said. The remaining 20 percent are undecided.

Given this track record of success, Roach noted that adding more schools should be increasingly easier.

“It is our hope that we can more easily replicate this model with interested high schools across the state in key market areas,” Roach said. “Between the construction labor shortage and the increasing costs of college tuition, we believe the ACE Academy model is vital and significant resource for high school student interested in starting and building a career in the construction industry.”

Associated Builders and Contractors is also working to lure high school students to careers in construction. Back in 2006 its Houston chapter teamed up with the Construction & Maintenance Education Foundation (CMEF) and Houston Business Roundtable to create the Construction Careers Youth Committee. It works to give students an inside look at construction careers by planning career expos and career development events, such as speaker presentations.

Through ABC/CMEF, Houston-area industry professionals are invited to serve on advisory committees that help educators develop new programs to strengthen the workforce. The Greater Houston area now has 25 school districts in which students can receive accredited craft training while in high school.

Many other ABC and AGC chapters have workforce development committees for industry professionals to serve on. AGC has a website dedicated to workforce development programs to help inspire members to adopt similar initiatives.

A win-win-win

The time is ripe for exposing more high school students to the option of trade education and the availability of a faster route to well-paying careers. College isn’t getting any cheaper, and not every four-year degree pays off. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education suggests that nearly 40 percent of students who started college in 2004 may default on their student loans by 2023. Meanwhile, goods trade jobs are there for the picking.

Construction companies and governments stand to benefit from CTE along with the students. As ABC Keystone Chapter President and CEO David Sload said in recent testimony to a Congressional subcommittee, “In order to remain the greatest nation on earth, we must equip our workforce with the skills necessary to compete in the modern economy.” Without a pipeline of new construction workers, he added, “Our industry will struggle to build the infrastructure necessary for our daily routines.”

Building our tomorrow requires training our students today.

Pat Evans is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas, NV, and Grand Rapids, MI, focusing on business, food & beverage and sports. Evans spent five years covering real estate and construction at the Grand Rapids Business Journal.

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