In previous articles, we've dissected the coming manpower shortage crisis in the construction industry. While the problem is, in fact, dire, there is a light shining in the darkness. Since the magnitude of the problem has been recognized, various trades and industry organizations have begun taking the necessary next steps in tackling the issue.
Although national professional organizations such as the Associated General Contractors of America, American Subcontractors' Association and the National Association of Women in Construction had worked on programs to generate interest in construction careers among young people, and many school systems provided a marginal amount of trade education, there wasn't a concerted, coordinated effort at recruitment on a local, let alone a national level.
Also, various local union and trade groups made small inroads in enticing high school students into the trades. While their efforts were admirable, they fell far short of what would be needed to blunt the effects of the coming manpower crunch. Something more was needed.
Enter a small but determined group of dedicated individuals who began a crusade in the late 1990s to actually do something about it. Despite the many and varied small programs scattered throughout the country, the Construction Career Days program had an immediate and tangible result.
On March 5, 1999, the first Construction Career Day fair was held in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, area. It was a four-day event put together by Ross Martinez, Mike La Pointe, Greg Mooney and Humberto Martinez in response to their recognition of hiring problems in their immediate area. The event brought together agents from all disciplines of the trades, including general contractors, subcontractors, heavy equipment manufacturers, union and non-union trade groups, educators and government officials. It was attended by 1,300 local high school students and was a resounding success.
The fair was not a simple show-and-tell of booths handing out literature. It was a hands-on, “get down to the nitty-gritty of what the trades are all about” exposition … and the kids ate it up. Operating heavy equipment like cranes, backhoes and bulldozers; soldering, welding, threading and bending pipe; wiring electrical circuits; framing a building; and forming and pouring concrete, among other trade crafts, brought the students a new level of respect and reality as to just what a career in construction was all about. There was even some recruiting on- site.
Building on the success of that event, the men were deluged with inquiries from some surrounding states as to how they too could put on such a program. They developed a seminar on how to plan a Construction Career Day event. As a result, in 2000, nine Construction Career Day events were held in California, Florida, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, with four of the events held in Texas. More than 11,238 high school students participated in nine events.
In 2001, the Federal Highway Administration, in partnership with Arkansas (which held its first event in September), Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas Department of Transportation funded a multi-state effort to host eight Construction Career Day events in those states (www.constructioncareerdays.us).
Also, in 2001, 11 other states individually planned and held 22 events that brought in 31,000 high school students. In 2002, the National Association of Women in Construction got on board and asked Construction Career Day Program members to present “how to” seminars at its national conference. As a result, NAWIC members throughout the organization began supporting the program and were often instrumental in organizing local teams of volunteers to plan and host Construction Career Day events. At last count, NAWIC is involved in Construction Career Day events in 27 of the 38 states where the program is active.
By 2004, the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation became champions of the idea, and in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration, created the National Construction Career Day Center in 2005. The program had now begun to steamroll, growing each year to encompass more states, more fairs and to bring in more students to be exposed to the career possibilities in the trades.
In 2007, there were 48 construction career day events, and by now the program had catered to almost 250,000 prospective construction career-minded students. By the end of 2008, there will be 223 fairs nationwide.
In Arizona, Charmaine Flint, Rose Anne Canizales, Micaela Jean, Sheila Hall, Carol Baldridge and Jackie Wszalek of the local NAWIC Chapter founded the Association for Construction Career Development (www.AZccd.com) to support the Construction Career Days initiative in this state. The program has been ongoing for seven years, and I was invited to attend this year's fair, which is held annually at the Arizona National Guard Facility. This venue allowed ample space for what can only be described as a playground for the trades. Name a trade or craft, it was represented there.
I was amazed, enlightened and gratified to see the level of participation by all facets of the industry, from earthwork contractors to the major general contractors and every trade in between. The event had every student doing something. Some of these kids had been bused in from the Navajo Reservation, more than 250 miles away. The expressions on the faces of both the students and the trade representatives were a joy to see. The obvious delight that the tradesmen took in seeing the enthusiasm of the students was worth the trip.
One minority student who I watched sums up the entire movement - he was in a line of kids, all trying to nail together a pre-cut wooden tool box donated by Sundt Construction for all of the attendees to keep. The young man wasn't very good with a hammer and sheepishly admitted this. An operating engineer was standing nearby and overheard this comment. He took the boy over to a Mitsubishi crane, sat him in the cab and after a few minutes of instruction, that young man was setting a concrete palette down dead center of the target! The look on the kid's face was priceless.
The obvious success of the Construction Career Days initiative needs the whole-hearted support of all of the construction industry. This program, and others like it, has the ability to put the brakes on our current manpower decline and to breathe new life into this venerable industry that made this country great. The ripple effect alone will do much for reinvigorating the trades across the nation. It is good to remember that the construction trades service is an industry that is not only home grown, but the vast majority of the products of the industry stay in America as well, adding to our GNP and the local economies, and providing meaningful career opportunities.
Organizations such as the Association for Construction Career Development; Associated General Contractors of America; Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trades Council; National Institute for Construction Excellence; National Association of Women in Construction; Michigan Trade Unions; Ladsen/Charleston, S.C. Career Days; Construction Education Foundation of Georgia; and many more are gaining the momentum and traction to tackle the problem and are succeeding.
Steve Albert, the director of apprenticeship training at North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, wrote about the program and his support for training initiatives. Theresa Baird, associate director of Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. writes that her organization is running a summer construction camp for teen girls which it is sponsoring in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Transportation. This example of grass-roots activism and community participation is what the industry has always been about. It's good to see it is coming back.
I'm sure that I am leaving out many worthy organizations and participating partners. Please accept my apology for the oversight and keep up the good fight!
The Brooklyn, N.Y. born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].