KEVIN LEININGER: Demand for construction workers, and programs to train them, show college isn’t the only path to prosperity

Leo High School senior Erik Mills tries out the putter he designed and built during the Associated Builders and Contractors' Prep Academy. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Woodlan High School junior Madison McGuire, seen here filing the head of what will be a putter, is the only girl in the current Prep Academy program. (News-Sentinel.com file photo by Kevin Leininger)
New Haven High School junior Damien Martz, left, solders his putter with the help of New Haven technical education teacher Kurt Singer. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
ABC's Prep Academy includes classroom instruction as well as hands-on training. Here Colin Taylor explains Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines. (News-Sentinel.com photo by Kevin Leininger)
Sarah Hollman
Kevin Leininger

If you think you can’t find a well-paying job without a college degree and the lingering debt that often comes with it, Sarah Hollman has a question for you:

“Why don’t you come here?”

The inquiry is not a rhetorical one for Hollman, apprenticeship director for the Associated Builders and Contractors’ Northeast Indiana Council. As she spoke, several high school students were in adjoining rooms gaining academic and hands-on knowledge many of them hope will lead to jobs in the construction business — an industry in which 80 percent of contractors are struggling to find enough skilled labor to meet the demands of a robust economy.

Now in its fifth year, the Prep Academy is a partnership between the East Allen County Schools and the ABC, an association of merit shop (non-union) contractors. Through classroom lectures, lab activities, visits from member companies, field trips and other activities participants are taught some of the skills being demanded by an industry looking to fill nearly 225,000 construction jobs each month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As I visited this week, students were crafting putters by cutting and soldering copper tubing, and building miniature golf holes by using their carpentry training to create obstacles from wood and PVC pipe. In an adjoining room, other students were hearing a lecture about safety that could expedite their certification under Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines.

Open to juniors and seniors, Prep Academy constitutes the students’ first two classes of the day and is funded by EACS, Hollman said. A spring job fair allows juniors to interview with and work for member companies over the summer. Because seniors are focusing on graduation, participation in the program and school is based upon their individual needs but with EACS’ help they also take the first year of a four-year apprenticeship course, giving them a head start toward becoming a journeyman.

“It would be the equivalent of a high school student taking AP and/or college credit courses in order to complete their education earlier,” she added. “Students who come to us as seniors have the same opportunity to interview at the job fair but the difference is they are looking for full-time, long-term placement and it is the responsibility of the student and/or the member company to pay the ABC tuition.” Through ABC’s partnership with Vincennes University, participants can also take college-level courses toward an associates degree at no additional cost.

Of the 45 students currently in Prep Academy, Woodlan junior Madison McGuire is the only girl — a distinction she admits was awkward at first.

“But I want to be different, not like other girls,” she said. “I wanted to be a veterinarian, but then I saw a surgery on a dog and I thought, ‘Nope!’ ” McGuire likes the hands-on nature of electrical work and welding and said her parents support her interest in the trades.

“College isn’t for everyone, and I don’t want the debt. I like using my hands and making stuff. I want a good-paying job out of high school,” said Damien Martz, a junior at New Haven High School.

“I’ve always been interested in construction. I really enjoy putting things together with my hands,” added Leo senior Erik Mills.

I was about their age when I decided to be a journalist, and knew it would take a college degree to make that happen. Besides, shop class had already made it painfully obvious my talent didn’t extend to building things. But for teens and adults interested and skilled in construction, groups like the ABC offer a way to get a foot in a potentially lucrative door.

And the demand for labor means there’s plenty of opportunity for growth, Hollman said. Although the Fort Wayne Community Schools provide vocational training at Anthis Career Center, she would like to find a way to work with other area school districts (ABC’s facility on Ellenwood Drive is within EACS’ boundaries). With just 17 of the program’s 86 students still working in the trades (earning $18 an hour and up within four years), she also hope to boost retention.

As anyone who has tried to hire a contractor recently knows, even finding one to give you a bid can be a challenge. And when you do get a response, the cost is likely to be higher than expected. Economics is cyclical, of course, but not even the Internet can replace contractors. So Hollman’s question is likely to remain valid for the foreseeable future:

Looking for a job, or even a career? Why not consider the trades? The ABC, and plenty of others, are eager to help.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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