Schools lay foundation to fill need for construction workers

Dale Hedrick, a pillar in Palm Beach County construction, got a call not long ago from a friend also in the business. The guy was desperate to hire someone – anyone – graduating from the University of Florida’s construction program. Hedrick, who sits on the school’s board, laughed.

“You have to recruit these kids like they recruit sports teams, go after them like Olympic athletes,” Hedrick recalled saying.

The education system just isn’t training enough workers to keep up with demand. It’s a shortfall that both the industry and the Palm Beach County School district are eager to fill; afterall, jobs in the construction field pay well.

But developing programs takes time — and money; growing interest means overcoming stereotypes.

In a bygone era, kids — mostly boys — who weren’t academically inclined, took shop classes and built birdhouses. But two Palm Beach County schools now boast construction academies and their student are building full-size homes for real people while earning their first certifications in carpentry and OSHA safety.

In Delray Beach, Atlantic High students poured the foundation on their program’s third home last month.

The construction academy there covers the cost of the build with a no-interest loan from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. Instructor Tim Sachse manages the spending; students help plan and do a majority of the labor. When the house is finished, the city sells the home and if there’s a profit, it returns to the school.

The last home built, just west of downtown and north of Atlantic Avenue, was listed at about $160,000.

Building modules at school

Miles away in Loxahatchee, Seminole Ridge students are building their fourth home for Habitat for Humanity. Construction is done on campus in modules that are eventually loaded on to a truck to be assembled on site – in West Palm Beach, Lake Worth and Jupiter so far. Habitat supplies the materials.

“We do one house a year. They walk out with quite a bit of skills,” said Rick Terkovich, who heads the program at Seminole Ridge, which has 177 students enrolled.

Students typically build those skills taking construction classes as electives — in two-hour blocks every other day for four years.

Terkovich starts each year with the beginnings of a house, 25 freshmen as well as returning sophomores, juniors and seniors. The ninth-graders begin with safety first and a review of basic math. Then it’s on to hanging drywall while the older students tackle plumbing and electricity.

That house is usually completed in November. By second semester, the students are on to the next. “Freshmen go back into the classroom for basic carpentry.”

The modular-build system for a Habitat home is unique to this county.

“It’s a great program that we would love to expand to other schools,” said Bernie Godek of Habitat for Humanity. “But the real advantage of the program is for the students. They have to be on track for a diploma and they are presented with opportunities – they can go on to higher education, or, because of their experience, they’re immediately employable.”

The demand is so great and the academic payoff so appealing, said the district’s specialist in construction, technology and industrial education, that in January, the district tapped state and private grants to open a third academy, this one in the Glades.

So far, they have about 30 students in the day school, another 30 come at night, said Jim Politis. “Right now those students are building something in-house. We’ve talked to Habitat for Humanity. When we have students in their third and fourth years, we can do what they’re doing (at Seminole Ridge).”

Important credentials

Students leaving these three programs not only earn a diploma, but also two certifications from the National Center for Construction and Education Research and one in safety from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — a credential that saves employers money.

The programs like these are both “extremely important” and number “not nearly enough” by Kenneth Simonson’s measure. Simonson is chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America in Washington, D.C.

“We’re hearing from more and more contractors they’re having trouble finding experienced workers and finding young people to come into the construction industry,” Simonson said. “Construction has been adding workers at double the rate of the overall economy.”

And the jobs pay well. While beginning workers may start at $9 to $10 an hour, they can build to jobs paying $80,000 to $90,000 a year. An average wage for an experienced carpenter in the area is about $20 an hour.

“The average annual earning for construction industry employees is about 6 percent above the average for everyone else,” Simonson said.

Terkovich can see the demand with a glance at his roll book. “I have nine students who want to go into the trades and I’ve got seven companies trying to hire them. Funny thing, five years ago I had seven or eight students and couldn’t find anyone a job.”

When the economy tanked in 2008, so did the construction industry and South Florida’s building market blistered worse than most.

Some construction pros took other jobs, enrollment at programs like the University of Florida’s construction college fell, and other building programs, like the one at Palm Beach State College, stopped enrolling new students.

Now Florida’s building market is among the top three states in adding construction jobs, alongside Texas and California, Simonson said.

Replacing retiring workers

And as that business rebounds, those who stuck around are nearing retirement, Simonson said.

“It’s hard to find young people and the old people like me are retiring,” said Hedrick, 58. His good news? “We have craftsmen making twice as much as teachers do.”

Which brings Hedrick to a beef shared by many in the business: “I get very frustrated that our education system is focused on college-bound students and I don’t want to say ‘ignores,’ but does not represent our community as far as trade and teaching and learning and providing for true options.”

Hedrick tries to do his part. His company offers guidance for high school students through a national program called the ACE Mentor Program for architecture, construction and engineering. They plan projects and walk through the construction process.

“Sometimes they think they really want to go to school for architecture or engineering, that sounds better, but then they start (working in the field) and say they really love working with their hands,” said Robyn Clark, who works for Hedrick Brothers Construction and heads the local ACE program in Palm Beach and Martin counties.

Among the students: teens working in Atlantic’s construction academy.

A school bus drops eight students, all boys in green shirts and hard hats, at the construction site shortly after the cement truck arrived one school day morning. The teens have leveled the lot, mapped the foundation and dug the holes for the foundation frame – that was the hardest part, they agree. All but one of the crew today are seniors, so they already have one house under their belts.

They work out here two hours every other school day. They’ll break for summer and the younger students return to complete the home next fall.

“I’m going into construction management,” says 18-year-old Carlos Cabrera, who said he’d planned a career in construction for years. His uncle owns a business that specializes in metal framing. “He wanted me to be an architect.” But Carlos didn’t take to the math, he said, and he prefers the work he’s doing now. “We actually got to do things, not just talk about it.”

Cabrera is aiming for college, Palm Beach State first and then that University of Central Florida, he said. But he’s already basking in pride. “I visited the last house the other day,” Cabrera said, referring to what they call Eagles’ Nest 2.

“It looks beautiful.”

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