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Build U: Springfield area high school students get hands-on education about construction-related trades

Published: Jun. 20, 2022 at 6:25 PM CDT|Updated: Jun. 20, 2022 at 6:52 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - About 30 high school students from around the Ozarks are getting hands-on training this week in a variety of construction-related fields.

It’s a program called “Build-U” hosted by the Springfield Contractors Association, and it’s coming at a time when the industry, like many others, is struggling to fill its workforce.

“The reality is we were struggling before everything hit,” said Megan Short, the Executive Director of the Springfield Contractors Association, about the hiring problems that have gotten worse since the pandemic hit and the decision by many people not to return to the workforce. “We’re still struggling now, and we’re expecting a six percent national construction growth between 2020 and 2030.”

The Springfield Contractors Association comprises more than 300 member firms with nearly 10,000 employees in construction-related fields, and this is the second year they’ve held “Build U.”

On Monday, about 30 area high school students toured Conco Quarries in Willard. They then came to Springfield’s Williams Construction, where an exhibit of different trades was waiting for them to try as they traveled to various stations in a large field.

There was plenty of heavy equipment to get their hands on, and lots of information was passed along.

“It’s everything they need to figure out what’s next,” Short explained. “What do the actual career pathways look like. How much money can I make at each of those jobs? And do I like doing it?”

Briona Wilson from Buffalo High School and Alondra Arreola from Monett were among the students who decided to attend “Build U.”

“School doesn’t really give us much of an option,” Wilson said. “They give us things like nurses, doctors, or police officers. But there’s a lot more we can do. I wanted to be in construction, but I just didn’t know which one. So I figured I’d just try them all to find the one I like.”

“I have no clue what I wanna do,” Arreola said. “So I just decided to sign up and see what’s around here and look at the possible opportunities.”

As they traveled around to the different trade stations on Monday, they found out you can make up to $ 53 an hour making traffic signal lights and how much operating a giant trash smasher with a 6,000-pound roller is a lot like playing a video game.

Mike Turner, the General Manager of Smash My Trash, watched as the students climbed into the cab of his company’s huge trash compacting machine and got the hands-on experience crunching large amounts of debris into small scraps.

“Most of ‘em came down with a big smile on their face,” he said.

The purpose of crushing and flattening the trash is to save landfill space and money for trash haulers by requiring fewer trips.

“Like I was telling the students, my drivers should never go home mad at the end of the day because all they have to do is tear stuff up and take their frustrations out,” Turner joked. “The students liked being able to tear stuff up without getting in trouble for it. And the controllers are basically like video game controllers, so most of the kids are better at it than we are.”

“It is kind of like a video game,” Arreola said of working with several pieces of equipment at Monday’s event. “You have the console, but you don’t look at the controls trying to see what’s on the screen. You’re multitasking. It was fun.”

“So things they’ve felt comfortable doing in their free time are translating into a job,” Short added.

The need for younger workers is higher than ever these days as the average age of a construction worker is 42 years old. So with Baby Boomers retiring and the Great Resignation bringing fewer people into the workforce, the industry is hurting for help, especially with the federal government pumping even more money into infrastructure repairs and rebuilds.

“We have a lot of roads and bridges that need to be rebuilt, and it’s been talked about for years because there hasn’t been the funding,” Short said. “Now the money is there, but if we’re not getting those people hired and trained, we are going to have an issue. We need more people to make sure we aren’t turning away all these projects. We’ve heard stories of public bids where they’re not getting any bids or just one person bidding. That’s not a good situation, so if we want to continue to have economic development and make our community better for the next generation, we need those workers.”

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