Youths needed to fill construction jobs as openings rise – Daily News

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Mark Long came from a family of high-school dropouts. And for a while, his siblings expected him to follow in their footsteps.

Math and science weren’t his thing.

“I just wanted to mess around,” the Orange County native said.

Then, Long discovered a new class at his high school.

Called BITA, or the Building Industry Technology Academy, the Katella High School course taught students how to hammer, saw, build walls and install wiring and plumbing. Students used their brains as well as their hands, with math as essential as a Milwaukee miter saw.

“It pretty much gave me a purpose,” Long, now 35, said of BITA. “Being able to build stuff was my passion.”

Long was the first in his family to pick up his high school diploma on graduation day, and the only one to finish college.

Today, Long is a construction manager for a general contractor overseeing road and bridge work. And, he’s Exhibit No. 1 for how training programs like BITA can help solve the construction industry’s labor shortage by steering high school students into the building trades.

BITA is now a statewide program, with classes in 29 California high schools.

“Our goal is to get the kids … interested in the construction industry,” said Jill Herman, director of the BITA program, run by the California Homebuilding Foundation. “And hopefully get into the construction industry.”

Homebuilders see the labor shortage as their top problem this year, according to a recent National Association of Home Builders survey.

While the industry has added nearly 1.5 million new construction jobs since the recovery began, it’s been 300,000 workers short, on average, over the past 10 months, U.S. Census and Labor Department figures show.

Demand for new homes is growing faster than developers can build them, industry officials say. Same with remodeling jobs.

“We’ve had a lot of people leave the industry. They’ve gone to other places (to find work) and they may never come back because of age, (or) they found a good job in … another skilled labor sector,” said Mark Pursell, president and CEO of NAHB’s National Housing Endowment. “It’s up to us to show the career path to the kids.”

‘We’re getting older’

The nation’s workforce as a whole has been aging, but construction workers are aging faster, census figures show.

The percentage of construction workers 45 and older went from a fourth of the industry’s workforce in 1993 to just under half in 2017. The number of senior carpenters, plumbers, masons and electricians tripled over that 25-year period, while the number under 45 years old increased just 16%.

“We’re getting older,” said David Pekel, CEO of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. “We need to develop a way to market what the skilled trades mean as a career path.”

Adding to the industry’s problems has been a shift in the nation’s high schools toward college and away from “career technical education” — what used to be called vocational education. Because of cultural preferences for white-collar jobs, parents and educators push students to college. Many see construction work as low-paying and subject to booms and busts that cause poor job security.

But that approach leaves those who aren’t college bound without the skills they need to find a job after high school, industry officials said.

“A lot of kids, they feel disenfranchised. They feel outside the system because it’s so focused on college,” said John Puckett, a teacher who helped start the BITA program at Katella High in 2002. “They go, if the only purpose to be here is to go to college, and I’m not going to college, there’s no reason for me to be here. So a lot of kids check out.”

Rather than graduate from college with $60,000 to $120,000 in debt, why not work construction after high school to pay for college down the road, several industry leaders said at the NAHB’s annual conference in Las Vegas.

“We’re not saying college isn’t an option,” said Bill Darcy, CEO of the National Kitchen & Bath Association. “(But) you can come into the trades and earn money, and if you want to, you can still go to college.”

National builders groups launched the nonprofit Skilled Labor Fund to raise money for high school training programs. This year, the fund is supporting construction training in 15 high schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and supporters hope to double that number next year.

“We’re trying to get back into the schools,” said Ted Mahoney, president of Windjammer Construction in Bridgewater, Mass., and chair of the National Housing Endowment. “We’re going to roll this out across the nation.”

BITA “is what the Skilled Labor Fund is all about,” added Pursell, the housing endowment CEO. “The more local programs that provide training, the better.”

Skipping college

As the bell rang one recent Monday morning, 20 boys and two girls took their seats in Pat Axtell’s third-period BITA class.

The Brea Olinda teacher outlined plans for that morning’s session before the students donned green hard hats and headed outside to continue building a cluster of sheds in a chain-link enclosure.

Some hammered nails. Others grabbed paint rollers and painted railings.

A year ago, Jonah Burt was among them. Now, he’s working for an electrical company, pursuing his goal of becoming an electrician.

The son of an attorney and a geologist, Burt, 18, didn’t follow his parents’ wishes that he apply for college.

“I didn’t see much of a reason,” he said. “I’m going into the electrical field, and I don’t need a college education for that. I didn’t see a reason to go into debt. I’d rather earn money than lose money.”

His two older brothers both have attended college, but have yet to settle on a career.

“I find it a little funny,” Burt said. “I’m the one who didn’t go to college, and I’m the most settled down.”

Some students say BITA inspired them to pursue careers in engineering and architecture.

Theresa Hoang is one of them. The UC Irvine freshman who spent two years in Katella High School’s BITA program is pursuing a degree in environmental engineering.

“I want to build things,” said Hoang, 18.

Others, like Christopher O’Campo, a senior at Valencia High School in Placentia, got into BITA because their parents are in construction. O’Campo, 17, now does jobs with his dad, a handyman.

O’Campo sees construction as “something to fall back on.” But it’s not a career goal for him.

“Eventually, I’d like to study music,” O’Campo said.

Average Joes

BITA provides its four-year curriculum to schools for free, said Herman, the program’s director.

Schools must provide a shop, tools and a full-time teacher. Two new programs are starting up in San Diego County, and the Los Angeles/Ventura BIA recently formed a workforce development committee “to drive (workforce) growth through BITA and other means,” said chapter CEO Tim Piasky.

Former BITA instructor Puckett, who now teaches construction to former gang members and other disadvantaged adults, said construction work can be lucrative, especially for those who move up the ranks or start their own companies.

“You wouldn’t believe how many guys that I know who are multimillionaires, and they’re just average Joes,” Puckett said.

Some experts believe, however, there’s a danger in going back to the days when students were divided into college and non-college tracks.

Students on the vocational track are less adaptable and often suffer diminished employment later in life, according to a recent study co-authored by Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. What happens to BITA grads, for example, when automation eliminates construction jobs, he asked.

“It’s important to be adaptable and adjust if the current structure of the world changes,” Hanushek said.

He argues it’s a disservice to offer vocational training as a substitute for general education.

“If you push for more vocational training, then you have to pair that with lifelong learning or learning so (workers) adapt,” Hanushek said.

Moving on up

That’s the path Mark Long ended up on. But it wasn’t always his plan.

Long planned at first to just work construction, taking a job with a friend’s remodeling company and also working part-time as a helper at his old high school BITA program.

But during field trips to construction sites, he was able to talk to project managers.

“It made me think, I want to do that. I want to be the one who’s in charge and being able to make some good money,” Long said. “ … Also, I didn’t want to be that 56-year-old guy bending over, destroying my body working in the sun all day. I wanted to know I could have a retirement and be able to enjoy it.”

So he started going to college part-time.

When the Great Recession hit, Long found himself out of a job and began attending classes full-time, supporting himself with student loans and a part-time job at an engineering firm while living with his sister.

After getting a degree in construction management, he went to work full-time at the engineering firm where he had been working while in school. He now works for a Corona general contractor, owns his own home in Menifee, is married and has a baby daughter.

“After I got my degree, I was moving up in the ranks. The pay got better,” Long said. “Now my family and I are comfortable. We’re not stressing about bills, and (we’re) able to enjoy our lives.”

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