Building Our Future: Construction Career Days Steer Students to Industry

Fri April 18, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla



“I wanted to do something different — ’color outside the lines’ — and frankly I like getting dirty,” stated an 18-year-old girl, ironically named White.

Cristie Lynne White, a young woman from a small town in Arizona, is one of an estimated 54,000 young women who have attended Construction Career Days (CCD) across the nation.

Now, certified in roughly 20 pieces of equipment as a Level III operator and armed with first aid and minor safety training, White is the new face of construction in 2008 — pushing the limits for women in what is traditionally a male-dominated career.

White went to her first CCD as a freshman in high school and has attended CCD events every year since.

She loved the hands-on lessons and if you ask her, she’ll say, “Nothing tops running a blade or motorgrader all on your own. It took a lot of guts, but the feeling you get when you overcome the fear, you have total pride.”

White is the first and only female to graduate from the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology’s heavy equipment program. She admitted she had a tough time gaining respect from her male classmates, but she took the opportunity as a challenge to herself.

If White could say a few words to help persuade other young women who have considered the construction field, they would be, “Never be afraid of something different because you never know what might await you. There is always a sense of accomplishment and independence. It’s not just moving dirt from one place to another.”

National Center in Rhode Island

There are Cristie Whites and CCDs in Arizona, Texas, New York and Vermont — with a national base in Rhode Island.

Construction Career Days — now celebrated with 35 events in 22 states across the country — are a workforce development tool that introduce high school students like White to careers in the transportation and construction industries. They support the pipeline that will provide the professionals of tomorrow.

CCDs have proven highly successful in promoting the transportation industry and the careers it offers to America’s youth. In partnership with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), the University of Rhode Island (URI) Transportation Center has been named the National CCD Center.

Since 1999, there have been more than 250 CCD events across the country with more than 230,000 students — including 94,000 minorities and 54,000 female students — attending from 6,159 schools and 2,825 school districts. Nationally, there also were more than 7,000 exhibitors and more than 4,500 pieces of equipment at the events.

Jeffrey Cathcart, director of technology transfer and outreach for the URI Transportation Center, said the first CCD in Rhode Island took place in 2001, with about 400 students attending. He should know, as he was the coordinator of the event.

Fellow sponsors included the Construction Industries of Rhode Island, New England Laborers Tri Funds, Local 57 Operating Engineers, Beacon Mutual Insurance Co., Junior Achievement, the Rhode Island Public Works Association, Rhode Island School-to-Career, the Rhode Island Builders Association and the Rhode Island Technology Transfer Center.

Since then, Cathcart said, the URI Transportation Center has received a federal grant to serve as a national clearinghouse for similar career days around the country. He said the whole idea started in Texas in 1999, when the Texas Department of Transportation had trouble getting bids on jobs because of a shortage of skilled workers.

“We primarily focus on the highway industry, but that encompasses all the construction trades. The skills transfer over,” Cathcart said. “A welder can weld on a bridge, a submarine, a building, a car. There are always jobs available for good people.”

In 2007, six years after the first event, about 1,200 Rhode Island high school juniors and seniors from 50 area schools attended CCDs held at RIDOT’s mid-state maintenance site in Coventry in May — a fourfold increase. They explored career options while getting a hands-on introduction to the tools of the trade — operating bucket trucks, driving forklifts, building toolboxes and designing virtual bridges.

When students arrive, they are given canvas duffle bags, each containing a hard hat, a pair of gloves and safety glasses. Students split their time between the outdoor area, with activities such as digging holes with backhoes and breaking up concrete with jackhammers, and the indoor area where they practice wiring electrical switches, welding steel and exploring displays of information from colleges, trade schools and union apprenticeship programs.

Nearly One Million Vacant Jobs

According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, average weekly earnings for employees of highway, street and bridge contractors as of March 2007 averaged $835.26 per week, as opposed to $794.12 for the construction industry as a whole.

Yet in 2008, there will be 952,000 net construction skilled, trade jobs vacant. The contracting/construction industry will need one million-plus new people each and every year thereafter.

Cathcart feels that one reason for this great void in the industry could be that although sometimes it’s the students who aren’t sure what they want to do (after graduation) many high schools now emphasize a college education to the point where other options are almost ignored. He said that many students are unaware of the wide range of jobs they can pursue. These range from machine operators, carpenters, plumbers and electricians, up to engineering and management positions.

Across all types of positions, starting salaries in the construction industry are generally greater (about $37,000 annually) as compared with entry-level positions in many other industries. In addition, many of the jobs are in great demand and likely always will be.

“I often say, people always will have to turn a light on when they enter a room, have a roof over their heads, drive on roads and more,” Cathcart said. “These jobs are not going away, they’re not going to be outsourced, they can’t be handled by a call center somewhere. At midnight in December, the oil burner repair man is going to be your best friend.”

Currently, the average age of workers in the skilled trades nationwide is 48. Those born from 1945 to 1950, the first wave of baby boomers, will start retiring between 2010 and 2015. Students involved nationally in CCD are 16 to 18 years old.

“There are many companies that are coming and looking to hire people,” added Cathcart. “It is a great opportunity to put their company before these people — their potential future employees.”

Vermont’s CCD Program

Last year, more than 600 students from 16 tech centers at area high schools attended the second Vermont Construction Career Day at Vermont Technical College in Randolph.

Held in October by the Associated General Contractors of Vermont (AGC/VT), the event offered educational displays and hands-on demonstrations of some 30 vendors and presenters of construction-related equipment, materials and services, together with representatives from construction firms, building trades, engineering consultants, government agencies, academia and others with an interest in the industry.

Under close supervision, students were able to operate construction machinery, industrial equipment and power tools. They learned about powder-actuated tools, welding, rigging, green construction and a number of construction safety issues.

Organized by AGC/VT Workforce Development Director Beth Hulbert and AGC/VT staff, the event featured about 30 individual stations spread out over the college campus.

After the tours, students and their school instructors gathered at the college gymnasium where they were provided sandwiches and other refreshments. Then they took part in a raffle with many prizes donated by the vendor exhibitors and heard a brief address by Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas.

The governor cited the Career Day event as a great opportunity for young people to learn about the construction industry and its high-paying jobs, and unveiled a life-sized replica of a proclamation he had signed in September making Oct. 7 to 13 Careers in Construction Week in Vermont.

The day’s events were well received by the hundreds of students and their instructors. Marc Capsey, an instructor for Northwest Technical Center in St. Albans summed up the mood:

“It’s been great. The kids didn’t know what to expect, but I’ve heard nothing but enthusiasm and positive comments from them. This has really opened students’ eyes about the opportunities available in the industry,” he said.

Connecticut’s CCD Program Thrives

Members of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, FHWA and the various skilled trade unions, have sponsored the same program, now in its seventh year.

The 2008 event will offer interactive exhibits, trade industry displays and demonstration projects requiring student involvement. Supervised by construction professionals, students can participate in more hands-on activities, including operating heavy equipment such as bulldozers, excavators and rollers. Skilled tradespeople will demonstrate crafts such as bricklaying, concrete finishing, welding, plumbing, electrical installation, materials testing and pipe laying.

Technology-based careers associated with construction, such as architecture, engineering, estimating and surveying will be represented, along with exhibits displaying the newest computer technology used in planning, designing and constructing highways, bridges and buildings.

Connecticut’s program will be presented twice, on consecutive days — Oct. 7 and 8 — at MountainRidge in Wallingford, Conn.

Financial donations and equipment to outfit the students, such as hard hats and safety glasses, are being accepted to help sponsor this program.

Exhibitor and demonstration project registration may be done online. Student registration is available online also. However, student registration has to be completed by a school administrator, guidance counselor or teacher.

Deadline for registration is Sept. 1. Students will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

For more information, contact Don Shubert or Faith Gavin Kuhn at Connecticut Construction Industries Association, 912 Silas Deane Highway, Wethersfield, CT 06109, call 860/529-6855 or visit www.ctconstructioncareerday.com.

Massachusetts CCD

Massachusetts Construction Career Days will be held in Hopkinton, Mass., May 7 to 9. The Bay State’s annual event attracts hundreds of high school students from all corners of Massachusetts.

For more information, contact Chris Ahmadjian at 413/545-2604 or ahmadjia@ecs.umass.edu.