Student Builders

Smart builders are developing their next workforce by involving the next generation in home building today.

July 25, 2000

It's not a regional problem. It doesn''t matter whether you are a small volume builder or a Giant. And it''s an issue that''s not going to go away.

Across the country and across the spectrum, builders are complaining about the same thing: labor shortages. There are simply not enough skilled trades to handle the industry''s demand.

There are a lot of theories as to why that is true, but the majority of builders recognize that a major factor is a severe lack of incoming young people who have the skills-and the inclination-to build homes. Despite what we hear about cuts in high school curricula that are squeezing out vocational training across the country, there are some programs that are making a difference. SkillsUSA-VICA, Job Corps and Austin''s Casa Verde are all great programs that have gotten national attention. But there are some very inspiring stories on the local level, too.

Students from Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District in the Twin Cit-ies stand in front of the house they built, as emcee Dean Johnson of TV''s HomeTime recognizes each one in an awards ceremony.


One of these is in Minnesota, where the Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District has partnered with the Builders Association of the Twin Cities (BATC), Pulte Homes of Minnesota, Pratt Homes, a Twin Cities-based home builder, a specially formed advisory board and a Realtor to create the Construction Occupations program. "The unique feature of this program is the strong partnership with employers in the home building industry," says Mike Smoczyk, manager of the Career and Technical Center at Northeast Metro 916, a school in the public school system that offers vocational training to students from 15 Twin Cities high schools. "Instead of just complaining about potential employees lacking basic work skills, they are doing something about it."

What they are doing is contributing their time, expertise and materials to help students get exposed to the trades and think about home building as a viable career option. And, according to Lowell Pratt of Pratt Homes, who was instrumental in getting this program and its companion apprenticeship program off the ground, it's not just the students who benefit. "Our firm had a need six years ago to build a relationship with local high schools because of labor shortages. We knew we had to be more proactive in showing high school students their opportunities and convincing them that a career in construction is a good one."

In the Construction Occupations program, three shifts of about 15 students travel to the job site during part of their school day. There, trades-excavators, framing carpenters, electricians, plumbers, HVAC guys and siding technicians-teach them how to perform each part of building a house. True, it took twice along to in-stall all the electrical wiring than in a normal house, says Smoczyk, but what they lost in time, they made up for in if not trained, at least interested, young labor prospects.

On the job training was augmented with classroom instruction, and by the end of the school year, the students had built a 2100 square foot, two-story, three-bedroom house. With the help and donated time of Realtor Kate Carter from Edina Realty, the home sold for the asking price of $249, 900. The proceeds of the sale, after costs are paid, loop right back into the 916 Foun-dation, a charitable non-profit that acts as the banker and owner of the project-buying land, paying bills, handling liability and selling the home. The money made from the sale, says Smoczyk, has already been earmarked for their next home building project, which will begin in September.

The students, all high school juniors, have taken from the program what Smoczyk and Pratt had hoped they would. According to student surveys, 38% of them have entered into the Northeast Metro Carpentry Youth Apprenticeship program, which has had 60 student participants in the four years it has been in existence.

In the program, students are employed by a local home builder and work side-by-side with the trades, not only developing their skills, but also honing their interests and selecting the trade that best suits them. Pratt currently has three apprentices from 916, one of whom was in the Construction Occupations program. He says that whether they come to work for him or not, when it's all said and done, he has helped a student decide on whether a career in construction is the right choice. If it is, he says, then there''s another trained worker to send out to better the industry.


This Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home was designed and built by students of U46 High School in Elgin, Illinois.


Just to prove this isn't an isolated occurrence and that builders all over can learn from good examples, a similar program has been going on for seven years in Elgin, Illinois. There, students at U46 High School designed and helped build a Frank Lloyd Wright-style home with the help of partnerships with the home building company U.S. Shelter, a building materials supply house, Siegles, and an advisory board. The eighth house students in the program have built, this one will go for about $349,000, according to Jack Soren-son of U.S. Shelter.

No longer are kids building houses on school parking lots, throwing up inexpensive for-rent housing or learning about construction only in the shop classroom-these students are getting hands-on experience by building well-crafted homes that demand market price at sale time.

Today's home builders are gaining experience as well-they are catching on to the fact that the only way to have a workforce tomorrow is to build one today.


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