By H. Kent Craig
SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR
HUDSON, N.C. — The principal of the first specialized vocational trades high school in North Carolina to be based on a community college campus sums up the mission of “The Career Center” here this way: “It’s all about the students. It’s not about me, it’s not about this institution, it’s about the students.”
Principal Carol Wright told CONTRACTOR: “Students can build bird houses, or they can build ‘real’ houses. So, it only makes sense for students to work on a project that is real-world-based and benefits both themselves and their community.”
The particular project to which she was referring originated out of a collaborative effort between the county school system as a whole and the Education Foundation of Caldwell County. Current instructors Stan Vines of the electrical trades program, Mike Swanson of the mechanical and plumbing trades program, and Michael Winn and Jesse Fox who teach carpentry completed the work that began more than a year ago under the leadership of former instructor Dennis Short.
Using community college or other post-secondary students to do real-world construction projects as part of their trades training is not uncommon. What is unusual is asking vocational education students from the 10th through the 12th grades to build a 1,600-sq.-ft., two-story home with full basement literally from scratch and doing almost all the work themselves to a level equal or superior to the quality a commercial homebuilder could offer. Installing Sheetrock on the walls was the only job contracted out.
“The fact that this house was built specifically for sale and was sold at market value is a source of pride for our students and the school system,” said Swanson, who is the mechanical trades instructor for The Career Center. “Experience gained in this high school-level trade school setting by our students is immediately translatable into credible, real-world experience on the job and into future employment opportunities. I’ve been in the mechanical trades all my career as a contractor and project manager and know from personal experience that when apprentice-trainees are hired off the street, it takes at least two years to train them on the job to have even the most basic of skill sets to where they eventually become profitable for the company.”
On the other hand, he added, the graduates of his program at The Career Center can make a profitable contribution for their new employer from Day One of their hire.
“This is because I try my best to produce future employees with good work habits and positive can-do attitudes who also happen to have excellent trade skill sets that employers can immediately use,” Swanson said.
With all the positives that The Career Center’s building trades program offers, the only major potential negative is the physical safety of the students while on the jobsite, he said. Instructors seek to mitigate those risks by limiting class sizes and by extensive pre-job safety training before a student ever actually sets foot on the job.
“Those two mandates combined with use of proper safety equipment and no-nonsense compliance with all federal OSHA and state safety regulations makes for as safe a jobsite as can humanly be made,” Swanson noted.
Building a house for sale cannot be accomplished by one trade alone or even one organization alone, and the house that The Career Center built and sold wouldn’t have been possible without the support of numerous outside individuals, organizations and companies. FlowGuard Gold, for example, donated all the domestic water piping for the house, and the Caldwell County School System fronted the money to buy the property where the house was built as well as purchasing all materials that weren’t donated. The net proceeds from the sale of the house go directly back into the countywide vocational education budget, not benefiting any one particular program over any other.
In deciding to build the house on a for-profit basis, The Career Center broke from local tradition somewhat by not building a home for Habitat For Humanity as students had done twice in the recent past.
“We have our students for two instructional blocks of time of approximately 212 hours each during the day,” Swanson said. “The next Habitat For Humanity housing projects on their schedule were simply too far away from the campus to allow for commuting time there, setup, adequate work time to actually get anything done during the day and pickup time, as compared with this one, which was just a five-minute drive away.
“Doing this house at this location near the campus was a combination of decisions based upon the practical needs of all involved, the focus on educating the students always being foremost in our minds, any incidental profit motive aside.”
The future of the program is perhaps reflected best in the students who participated in the project.
“Take for the best example Damon Kirby, who acted as my student-superintendent on this job,” Swanson said. “Damon’s trade knowledge, enthusiasm, punctuality, work ethic and attention to detail set an example for all students involved in the project across all trades, not just in our mechanical trades curriculum. Because of the classroom-level theoretical knowledge and documented practical hands-on experience he received through the program, he already has one firm job offer to work for a local mechanical contractor during the upcoming summer vacation period that he’s accepted with two more job offers on the table waiting for him.
“For those students such as Damon Kirby, who want to take advantage of the very real opportunities that our program offers, their future is, without exaggeration, unlimited.”