Possibility Meets Tenacity
AEC leaders team with students to sustain tomorrow’s construction workforce
“My son is a different person. They saw greatness in him and encouraged him and changed his life.”
These words, from a grateful single mom, exemplify the value of the adults who are changing lives at the Advanced Career Education Centers created through Henrico County Public Schools, just outside of Richmond, Va.
Life, after life, after life is changing. Kids on the fringe become motivated young adults. Youth lacking direction become confident, career-minded leaders. Students without hope see visions for their futures.
“It’s all about that one kid,” says Gregg Spicer, a former teacher and now the Assistant Training Director for Richmond Electricians Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, through the Electrical Training Alliance. “It’s that student that you met when he was in the middle school program and you taught him in the summer program … and he kept coming back. Then he graduated. He went into an apprenticeship program and achieved professional certification. He got a good job. And then one day, years later, you run into him … now with his wife and children … and he says, ‘Thank you for being there, for caring, for having been honest with me,’—then you know you’ve made a difference.”
Spicer should know. He was one of those kids, too.
“When you’re a teenage kid of a single parent, and you don’t see your mom at night because she’s too busy working hard to take care of you, you carry a lot of weight and have to learn hard lessons on your own,” he says. But thanks to visionary school districts like Henrico County, changed lives happen. This story tells you how.
What Happened, and Why?
Vision begins with one thought; in this case, that thought came from Herman Blake Jr., a local builder and developer who was looking for ways to give students meaningful experiences outside of the classroom. In 1986, while serving on the Henrico County School Board, he shared his ideas with the board. They listened intently and then chose to provide a $50,000 grant to create the Henrico County Vocational/Technical Education Foundation, Inc. (HCVTEF). The foundation was then charged with implementing a program called the House Building Project. Through this initiative, students could gain marketable, real-world experience to help them make the transition from the classroom to careers in the construction industry. “Programs like this can only happen with a forward-thinking governing body like the school board at Henrico County Public Schools,” adds Mac Beaton, Director of the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. “Mr. Blake continues to be a strong advocate for the program, as is the school board.”
Since 1986, the House Building Project has provided students the opportunity to build 17 homes. Together, the two most recent ones brought in nearly a half-million dollars. One of them sold within just a few hours after going on the market—even resulting in a bidding war.
The proceeds from all sales go back into funding the program. The board also holds an annual golf tournament to further fund the initiative. Last May, the foundation held its 12th consecutive tourney, netting a record-breaking total of over $13,000.
Funds are used to buy building materials and land; but profits also go to the students to meet very real and specific needs. For example, one student might need a scholarship toward a four-year college or an apprenticeship program. Another student might need steel-toed work boots or tools; still another may simply need textbooks. The board recently picked up the costs to send students to the national SkillsUSA competition. The individual approach to meeting needs continues to be a hallmark that differentiates Henrico County’s program from other experience-based learning models.
Power to the People
Demand for the construction curriculum is so great that the school system cannot accommodate all of the students who want to participate.
The summer building trades program is open to 9th and 10th graders who have not yet begun studying the building trades courses. The six-week program is capped at 50 participants. Online registration begins one night per year, at midnight, and each enrollment is time-stamped to assure fairness and accuracy. The program is always full that same morning by 2 a.m. The course starts at the end of the regular school year and students learn to set basement walls. More importantly, they learn life skills and gain knowledge about safety, work ethics, teamwork and personal responsibility. Spicer adds, “The program teaches 80 percent life skills; it teaches the importance of being productive citizens and our heart truly goes into every student.”
Each home, ranging from 1,500 to 1,900 square feet, is built in two years. In the first year, students complete all rough-in work; the second year is spent on trim out.
“The home is our laboratory,” says Beaton. He explains that students begin by setting budgets for all items and creating a building timeline. “We way over-build in order to give students practice in dealing with many different aspects of the building process,” he adds. The homes often include amenities, such as gas fireplaces, tile hearths and archways in the halls.
This laboratory is where change happens. “When a student has a purpose and sees value in what he or she is doing, the student will invest more,” Beaton adds. “They put knowledge in action; they understand the relevance and rigor of what they’re doing, which makes learning make sense for them.”
Bob Himmel of HimmelHume Architecture is the chair of the HCVTEF. He underscores Beaton’s remarks. “A career and a life in the trades is a very honorable one and can be extremely rewarding,” he says. “I feel that our society doesn’t value the trades as much as it should. My gut tells me that kids are pining for more hands-on learning experiences. In the House Building Project, I see them enjoy their teachers, build camaraderie and become focused and happy when they see what they created through their own hard work.”
These students truly experience their moment of truth when they are on site with the city and county building inspectors who come to certify that the property meets all local building codes. “Building inspectors are blown away when they come out to inspect our students’ work,” Beaton adds. “They see that the students have taken time to do things the right way and have not taken any shortcuts. The inspectors always comment on how well the homes are built.”
Interested businesses and individuals can help the House Building Project (HBP) in many ways. Here are some:
- Donate materials and/or services.
- Serve as a member of the HCVTEF board.
- Make classroom presentations about your trade specialty or company.
- Agree to hire high school seniors to participate in practical work experience programs.
- Donate land for future house building projects (HBP is currently in the process of being gifted about 60 acres by a local family; this is a large tract that will allow students to learn and hone their skills for years to come.).
- Provide mentors to work with students at the house building site.
Face the Facts
Today, America’s skilled labor shortage impacts the vital construction market on a daily basis. Rising labor costs coupled with an aging workforce are adding to the challenge that construction companies face in locating and retaining high-quality employees.
“Not everyone needs a four-year college education to be professionally successful,” says Cheryl Shanahan, a Private Project Consultant at The Blue Book Building & Construction Network and a member of the HCVTEF board. “Buildings don’t build themselves; we must change the conversation or reposition how a career in the trades is perceived by guidance counselors and parents—and most of all, by the emerging workforce.”
Henrico County Public Schools is doing just that.