By Scott Bland
Over the last 30 years there have been two trends in our educational system and the construction industry that have been slowly and steadily creating an issue that has the potential to create dramatic problems within our economy. The construction industry that is critical to our economic health is experiencing a massive talent drain that is not being renewed. Fortunately, there is a plan in place to bring talent back to the industry and reverse the stigma that has been created around jobs in construction. It’s important to first look at the two trends that created the issue.
During the last 30 plus years our education industry has been a “college or bust” model in which students were taught from the perspective that going to college after graduation was the only path to success. As a result, careers that didn’t involve a college degree were not presented as desirable paths to take after graduation. This has created a stigma against jobs in the construction industry and caused students to look at other options even if they have an interest and ability to work within the trades.
At the same time the education industry was steering students away from the construction industry, the industry itself was becoming more and more diverse and technically complicated. The process of building a home or commercial building has evolved far beyond what the shop classes of the 1970’s and 80’s were able to show students. From the miles of electrical and network wiring to the framing calculations involved in high pitched roofs and vaulted ceilings, the construction industry can no longer get by with an un-educated workforce.
What is not being taught to our high school students is the fact that there are jobs within the construction industry that pay at rates the same as or in many cases higher than jobs requiring 4 year degrees. A student graduating high school with a background in construction trades and who takes post graduate classes to receive certifications in the industry are suddenly qualified for hundreds of careers with pay ranges starting from $30 per hour and up. The lack of a talented applicant pool is so dire at this point; many trades companies will put these individuals into apprentice positions and work with them as they earn the certifications they need.
What is needed is a program within the high school system that a student who is interested in careers within the construction industry can get specific class instruction as well as hands on training in the field. We are so fortunate in Central Texas to have the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy (GWAMA) that can serve as the home for a construction sciences program. One of the many advantages to GWAMA is that it is open to students from any district in Central Texas. The GWAMA program has already had tremendous success within the welding, metalworking, and health care industries and there is space available for a construction services division.
The program that is being proposed would begin in the 10th grade and would be exclusively taught in the classroom in that first year. The first year would be the time when the students would be exposed to all facets of the construction industry as well as being taught the basics of construction. Students would be taught the basics of plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning, framing, and masonry so they could begin to get a feel for their primary interest. This year would also involve receiving their OSHA certifications and CPR training to emphasize the importance of safety on the job sites.
In the second year, the students would have much more specific classroom training geared towards their primary areas of interest. At least half of their time will be spent on job sites to begin get a feel for what a career in the industry is really like. NeighborWorks Waco has dedicated a yearly construction site for students in the program to receive instruction in their second year.
In the final year the students will apply for, interview, and work within the industry on a paid internship. The students will have one day a week in the classroom and spend the other 4 days in a paid internship at a company within their primary area of interest. This is the model that companies within the industry are encouraging and the model that they will support by providing these internships. From the industry perspective, this gives them the opportunity to make sure students are being exposed to the concepts and practices that give them the best chance at being successful.
For the students within the program, they will graduate with a diploma that has endorsements from the Heart of Texas Builder’s Association, the Texas Association of Builder’s and the Waco Association of General Contractors. That endorsement is the way that a student can show a potential employer that they have training and instruction that moves them ahead of other applicants. That endorsement may also place them further ahead within an advanced certification program.
The message that needs to be out there is that the construction industry is no longer an industry to be stigmatized as a place for students that can’t make it in college. The salaries, benefits, and security of jobs in construction no longer lags behind professions requiring advanced degrees. The complexities of the industry also require students who are capable of working with their minds just as well as working with their hands.
The construction sciences program at GWAMA, if approved, will provide students with an alternate path to success from the traditional “college only” model. It will provide a reason to continue going to school for those students who have no interest or desire to go to college. For a student whose family is involved in the construction industry, it will provide a validation and sense of pride in that work which has been missing for far too long. And for the student who desires a college education but cannot see any possible way to pay the costs – consider the benefits of having a high paying job in the construction trades to earn money to pay for that college degree! This program provides a pathway to a career that can pay those tuition costs. A young person who has construction industry certifications, and a 4-year degree, and who has no student debt is a tremendous benefit to our economy. However, a young person with only a 4-year degree and who owes thousands in student loan debt is sadly far more common.
(Note: The Waco ISD Board of Trustees will be hearing an update on the Construction Academy at their October 20 board meeting.)
Scott Bland was born and raised in Waco. He is an alumnus of Baylor University. He worked for Highland Homes in the Dallas area from 1998 to 2001, then joined the United States Secret Service as a Special Agent after the 9/11 attacks. He retired his commission in late 2006 to return to Waco and take over the family business, Jim Bland Construction, where he has served as Owner and President of the company for the last 10 years. He is currently the President of the Heart of Texas Builder’s Association as well as a member of the Board of Directors for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce.
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