Construction Career Days for APWA

Liz Krajca
Editor
Texas Contractor

"Construction is one of the last fields where a person with or without a college degree, if they apply themselves, can aspire to own their own business five to ten years after entering the field," said Humberto Martinez, associate director for professional development for the Office of Civil Rights, Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"We must make young people aware of the tremendous opportunities that exist in the construction industry today," said Mike LaPointe, one of the founders of the Construction Career Days program and chairman of Texas Construction Career Days. "Employers are looking for more and better trained service technicians, certified mechanics, parts changers, operators, skilled crafts people, superintendents, crew supervisors, lead persons and more to keep up with the demands of a booming economy."

Of course, areas of the construction industry have slowed due to the current slowing economy, but other areas show no signs of slowing down, nor will they in the near future. Public construction, highways, streets and bridges, water/sewer lines, residences, schools and medical facilities for our growing young and aged populations respectively are necessary areas of growth for our infrastructure.

There are, reportedly, approximately 300,000 unfilled jobs of all levels in the construction industry right now. Today's high school students represent the pool of workers from which the construction industry will recruit its future work force.

"We look to recruit students reaching the end of their high school days without a plan for their future as well as those looking toward college degrees in the engineering and mathematical fields," said Carrie Pierce, chair of the 2001 North Texas Construction Career Days Committee.

Among attending students, some are already considering construction as a future trade, while others simply come to explore the option.

The construction industry has such a poor public image that these interactive career day events have astonished educators more than anyone else. And that is the starting point. Once educators and parents realize that the construction industry holds opportunities for respectable careers, they may stop using the construction industry as the threat of doom for underachieving students. In fact, the remark heard most often from teachers and counselors at Construction Career Days is that they had no idea construction held such a wide range of job opportunities.

Several industry associations have developed excellent programs and web sites dedicated to information about careers in construction, but until we develop a career interest in students and industry respect among high school educators, will these sites even be visited? Career fairs are one way for employers to spark interest in young prospective talent.

Origins
Construction Career Days is a phenomenon that originated in Dallas a little over four years ago when a small group of construction businessmen and Federal Highway Administration officials decided to do something about the profound shortage of construction employees and the image of the construction industry.

During the latter part of 1997, Mike LaPointe of J.L. Steel, Greg Mooney, then of Granite Construction, Humberto Martinez of the Federal Highway Administration, and Ross Martinez, also with the FHWA, began informal discussions on the severe shortage of skilled workers in the highway construction industry. The shortage had become manifest in the form of reduced quality and a decrease in the number of bidders submitting quotes for highway projects in Texas. Greg Mooney suggested the idea of marketing the construction industry and career opportunities within it to high school students. Thus the idea for the "Highway Construction Career Days" events was born. The original group of four grew rapidly as other persons interested in the concept and equally concerned about the work force shortages joined the group and volunteered to help in organizing the first event.

The group planned and scheduled the first event without any specific funding sources identified. Group members contributed funds, equipment, time, and talent to make the event a success. Each member of the Work Group was actively involved throughout the entire event from planning through completion. Some group members focused on planning the event's details, including site design and layout, event activities, media publicity, and exhibitor participation. Other members involved themselves in logistics including securing construction equipment for static and operational display, site security, tent, electricity, lunches for participants and volunteers, transportation and parking. Still other members spent a considerable amount of time marketing the event to school administrators in the various school districts in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

The program began spreading like wildfire throughout the U.S. This year, over 400 construction trade associations, government agencies, contractors, and equipment distributors will become involved in organizing the most extensive display of hands-on construction demonstrations ever seen for high school students. According to Humberto Martinez of the FWHA, to date over 44,000 students from over 600 schools in seven states have been exposed to construction careers through the Construction Career Days program. Another three states in addition to the previous seven have scheduled these career fairs for 2002. Ten more states are in the initial planning stages for a Construction Career Days event.

Funding
In addition to local participation, the Federal Highway Administration has become the primary sponsor of Construction Career Days. To date, FHWA's contribution to the Construction Career Day effort totals approximately $920,000. FHWA funds, such as the "On the Job Training Supportive Services Fund," are being utilized to fund Construction Career Days events. In addition, each state may use up to one-half of one percent of funds allocated to the state under the Surface Transportation and Highway Bridge Replacement Programs for programs of this nature.

Planning the Event
The primary characteristic of a successful Construction Career Day, as discovered by the program founders, involves starting with a committed and passionate core committee representing many aspects of construction.

It is critical that the core committee represents the FHWA Division Office, the State DOT, and industry. It is the industry that has the need for a skilled workforce and it is the industry that can commit to the opportunities for youth participating in the career fairs and related events. Therefore, the involvement of individual contracting firms, suppliers, equipment distributors, State DOTs, industry associations, education and others that can provide specific employment, training and other developmental opportunity for interested youth is imperative to success.

Secondly, all committee members must leave their hats at the door. When conducting committee business, all members no longer represent their organization in terms of motives, interests or specific outcomes. The only focus for committee members should be on the purpose of the career fair, i.e., attracting youth to careers in the construction industry.

The aspect that makes Construction Career Days different from most other career fairs is the availability of many "hands-on" activities, providing a degree of reality that cannot be duplicated by a video or speech. The reality of the industry is reinforced by the time students spend one-on-one with actual construction workers, and the real hard hat they receive upon arrival, which they are able to take home with them.

Remember the expression of a child playing with a new truck. What if that new toy was a life-sized backhoe? That is the expression we have seen on every teenager who has experienced the excitement of Construction Career Days. Students not only hear about the machines and tools that build our highways and skyscrapers at Construction Career Days, but are able to touch and operate them.

To reach Liz Krajca, call (972) 484-1277 or send e-mail to lkrajca@cahners.com.