Education: Accommodating opportunities

It’s time we extend to occupations in the construction industry the same respect we extend to the professions that require a college degree. While our educational system is designed to build a solid foundation through the core subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic, updated now to science, technology, engineering and math, it must also prepare those not aspiring to college the life skills and knowledge necessary for meaningful and rewarding careers.

The Southern Illinois Builders Association and the Southern Illinois Construction Advancement Program just completed their 21st annual Construction Industry Career Expo. Students were exposed to multiple apprentice recruiters, each skilled in his/her trade. Demonstrations were available, written materials provided and questions answered.

What was clear from each of the trades was that while a college education was not required, successful completion of high school (or a GED) was a prerequisite. Each of the recruiters identified multiple skills learned in school were not only necessary, but applicable to the work performed in the construction trades.

For example:

1. Computer savvy applicants are needed to collect and process data, run estimating and scheduling applications and to design projects utilizing computer simulations.

2. Math is an integral part of each of the construction trades. The mathematical knowledge runs the gamut from everyday arithmetic (fractions, decimals and percentages) to geometry, algebra, even trigonometry and beyond. Not every job requires advanced knowledge, but a rudimentary understanding is needed.

3. Artistic talent plays a recurring role in many aspects of the construction industry. Buildings, roads and landscaping must be visualized, designed and refined before and, at times, during construction. Consequently, computer drafting skills are useful, desired and rewarding.

4. Science is the cornerstone of the construction industry, i.e., understanding how things work, why things work, the optimum procedures applicable to the existing conditions and how to avoid foreseeable, but undesirable consequences.

While those who attend four-year colleges learn many invaluable lessons in an academic setting, those who enter the construction trades learn through paid apprentice programs (often paying between 40%-70% of union scale) and acquire real-world experiences. An apprentice has the opportunity to start saving and build up a nest egg in lieu of college loans. Salaries are not only competitive, but exceed many of the entry level jobs for college graduates. Union wages range from $29.86/hour for painters to $40.25/hour for steamfitters. The fringe benefits have an additional value which range from $15.35/hour for pipefitters to $33.35 for operating engineers.

Sounds good, what’s the point? The point is this — many students who do not aspire to go to college stop applying themselves in school or they get into trouble and, as a consequence, fail to get their high school diploma. Those same students are often drawn into other behavioral patterns which are not conducive to reliability, dependability and the work ethic employers (and unions) require.

When some finish their teen years and enter their early twenties, they belatedly come to the realization of the opportunity they forfeited in high school. While it may not be too late, it takes extra effort and diligence to replace what they could have accomplished if they had realized earlier the benefits of a high school diploma.

What can be done? Several things could help. First, parents, educators and the community can extend to those in the construction trades and other physical occupations the same respect given to white-collar college educated employees. Next, starting as early as preschool, kindergarten and continuing through grade school and middle school, students can be exposed to careers available in the trades and physical occupations.

Between fourth and seventh grade, students should be exposed to the rewards and economic opportunities in the trades and occupations. At the same time (the fourth to seventh grade) educators, parents and the building industry can remind students of the value and need for a high school diploma even if college is not the student’s immediate goal. Next, schools can work with the construction industry, the business community, the healthcare community and governmental agencies to expose and reinforce to students the opportunities outside the college track.

Finally, high schools can continue to enhance career tracks and equivalent tracking into curricula with alternative means to accomplish the academic requirements in a timely manner. Perhaps summer and after-school programs could provide the opportunity for career enhancement or vice-versa provide the academic requirements missed while attending vocational training during the school day.

We all win when we allow and facilitate our teenage students to meet their four basic psychological needs:

  • To stand out (to develop an identity and autonomy)
  • To fit in (to find comfortable affiliations and gain acceptance of peers)
  • To measure up [to develop confidence and find ways to achieve)
  • To take hold [to make commitments to particular goals, activities and beliefs)

[www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK 53420]

Underlying these basis needs is hope in the future and a path to a life with meaning. Treating our children, their teachers, their aspirations and their career choices with respect is a gift we can give to the benefit of all.

The question should not be the trite expression “what’s in your wallet?” but rather what life skills will provide you the earning capacity to replenish it?