Rising from the sawdust

Construction programs aim to refresh industry with new workers

Posted on Apr 1, 2016 :: Construction
Andrew Schaick
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

High school seniors deciding on a career path can face overwhelming pressure from parents, friends and advisors urging them to attend a four-year college to pursue a degree.

But some traditional programs at Fox Valley Technical College are changing the way advisors and students think about post-graduation plans, particularly those with an interest in construction and building trades, where students can get hands-on training, on-site learning and a quick start to a new career.

“A lot of students in our construction management program are actually working full time in an internship role, so they are sometimes only considered part-time students,” says Deb Heath, dean of transportation and construction technologies. “Our programs make students well-rounded and help them get associated with all aspects of construction.”

Fox Valley Technical College has two construction programs that give students the option to work either in the commercial construction or residential construction field.

The Residential Building Construction program runs two semesters and a full summer in which students can earn a technical diploma after successful completion of the program. A vacant lot is typically purchased through the technical college’s foundation and students work to construct the home. All proceeds from the house sale over and above the cost of materials go back to the FVTC foundation in the form of scholarships.

The other program FVTC offers is the Construction Management Technology program. This program is designed for commercial construction and students learn the skills it takes to be a construction manager for a commercial builder.

While the programs provide many advantages, there is one key benefit students looking for a quick career start should consider, Health says, and that is the demand for these skills in the industry.

“We have a 100 percent placement rate for all of our graduates,” Heath says. “There is a high demand in this industry and the placement rate of our students truly shows that.”

Businesses feeling the strain

For builders, who are finally seeing an acceleration in building projects, one of the highest hurdles to taking on more work is finding the skilled labor needed for the jobs.

More companies are combating the labor shortage by starting their own partnerships with area schools to create training programs.

H.J. Martin and Son is aggressively involving itself in educational opportunities to address the need for future workers.

Its most recent initiative is the WORX class at West De Pere High School. This program is open to any freshman, sophomore or junior student and is designed to expose students to multiple construction, manufacturing and transportation related trades.

Ryan Foley, H.J. Martin’s vice president of field operations, says getting into the classrooms now will sustain positions in the future.

“By providing students with a meaningful, hands-on experience, we hope to plant a seed early that there are high-quality jobs within the construction profession,” Foley said in a press release. “H.J. Martin has a number of highly-skilled employees who have been with the company for decades, but who we expect will retire in the coming years.”

Other businesses in the construction industry say a lack of awareness has tarnished the image of construction careers and that is why companies are trying to expose students to what the job is really all about.

“One thing people need to realize is these jobs pay quite well,” says Craig Vandenhouten, owner of Van’s Lumber. “For example, we pay hourly rates so workers have the opportunity to make time and a half.”

Vandenhouten also says that a job should create a level of enthusiasm, which in turn will make a worker stay long term with the industry they choose.

“Enthusiasm really means a lot for those who work in the construction industry,” Vandenhouten says. “One thing about this trade is you meet a lot of great people and you can learn a lot from them, especially the workers who have been in the industry for generations.”

For students wanting a quick start to a career, this path is designed for them, educators say.

“These jobs are very viable and provide family-sustaining wages and after two years they can be employed in their career,” Heath says. “Even though the interest in these careers is starting to grow, it will be a slow process that we will need to stand behind and continue to shape.”