College and Career Ready: What it Means from a Building Trade Perspective
Everyone wants high school students to be college and/or career ready upon graduation. In the construction industry, we often find high school students who are "career ready" upon graduation are steered toward college, and those that are neither college nor career ready are steered toward building trades apprenticeships upon which they are unprepared to embark. This inefficient pipeline can create a downside for both students and the construction industry.
Careers in the building and construction trades require an essential set of skills and knowledge that many high school graduates simply lack. These include knowledge of basic math, such as algebra and geometry, and the soft skills necessary to be successful in any career. Many are surprised to learn that building trades apprenticeships require another three to five years of classroom training after high school.
The building trade industry is like any other: we like to cherry pick the best in the bunch. However, of the 18-year-olds, we pick very few because we often times have to wait two-to-seven years to get them. This is because the individuals we want are first guided toward college. We often eventually get these individuals, but we get them after they have racked up $20,000 or $30,000 in college debt.
We recruit those with a year or two in architecture from Ball State or engineering from Purdue. We also take in those with four-year degrees in English who discovered they need a decent paying career to pay back all of their private school loans.
Our industry also recruits heavily from our nation’s armed forces. After four-plus years of service and developing an easily transferable military occupational specialty (MOS), these individuals are the ideal candidates: smart, dependable, drug-free, and highly disciplined.
The above two recruiting scenarios create a pool of apprentices with an average age of 27. This creates a downside for both the apprentices and the construction industry: the lifetime earning potential for the construction worker is diminished by the time it took them to find and/or prepare for the industry, and the industry suffers from losing six or seven years of potential return on the training investment over an individual’s career.
Industrial, commercial, and heavy highway and utility construction are a lot more complex than people think. Quite frankly the vast majority of recent high school graduates directed to an apprenticeship in the construction industry won’t make it in the door. A hammer and flip-flops may work on home repair, but it won’t work when building a bridge or a power plant. It’s a dangerous line of work and if things are not done under proper protocols, people die.
High schools have a duty to show students that there are career paths that do not go through the traditional four-year college model. They must demonstrate the value in apprenticeships and again focus on vocational training. There must be an understanding that there are parallel career paths that lead to a good living.
In Indiana, upon graduation from Ivy Tech Community College in a building trades’ apprenticeship program, most apprentices are conferred an Associates of Applied Science in Construction Technology at no cost to them. This comes in addition to the journeymen certification and a promising career that pays $40,000 to $100,000 a year, depending on overtime.
Three to five years of apprenticeship, an associate’s degree, and no debt: it’s a career path worth pursuing at a younger age. High schools need to help prepare students to discover this pathway sooner in their lives.
Pete Rimsans is Executive Director of the Indiana State Building and Construction Trade Council. The council represents Indiana's 127 local building trades unions and their 75,000 member professionals. He has served the state of Indiana as deputy commissioner of labor and holds a bachelors degree from Iowa State University.