A shortage of workers has plagued the construction industry for years. According to Forbes, after the 2008 Great Recession, 600,000 construction jobs were lost that haven’t returned. A report earlier this year by the Associated Builders and Contractors, a national construction industry trade group, stated that the industry needed to hire an additional 550,000 workers in 2020.
The worker shortage in the construction industry is exacerbated by the lack of young people showing an interest in entering the profession. Per a 2018 Wall Street Journal article, the share of construction workers who are 24 years of age or younger has declined in 48 states since 2005.
The challenge for the construction industry moving forward is to raise awareness of its careers and to recruit young people to join the industry, a process which will begin in the Vilonia School District in kindergarten.
On Dec. 14, the Vilonia School District announced the Vilonia Pathways Academy, a new charter school program. The program, which will launch in August 2021, will give families the opportunity to enroll their children in a virtual K-12 program that meets Arkansas Department of Education required goals, while presenting class material through a construction industry lens.
The program, funded through a $625,000 Arkansas Public School Resource Center subgrant, is a blended learning model that emphasizes service learning alongside its virtual curriculum. Through partnerships with Nabholz Construction, Kinco Construction and other firms, the program will provide speakers, field trips to work sites and other hands-on activities to build on the virtual curriculum.
Kindergarten through sixth grade students will do most of their service learning work through a community garden, while seventh and eighth grade students will focus on career exploration and learn more about the various career paths available in the construction industry.
In the ninth grade, however, students have a choice to make. Through a partnership with the UA Little Rock Construction Management program, students can choose between a college-prep or general workforce pathway. Students in the college-prep pathway will have the chance to enter a concurrent credit program that can be applied to UA Little Rock’s construction management degree, while the general workforce program will teach students skills and equip them with the certifications needed to enter the workforce after high school graduation.
Vilonia assistant superintendent Cathy Riggins, the architect of the program, said that the creation of the program stemmed from a need for more education options for students.
“There’s a need for a more flexible option in public education,” Riggins said.
She added that the need for workers in the construction industry gives schools an opportunity to highlight alternative career opportunities.
“[The] construction industry is in need of workers,” Riggins said. “[The industry] has good jobs, [but] students don’t realize it.”
Partners on the new project agreed with Riggins’ assessment. Lance Wright, senior project manager for Kinco Constructors in Little Rock, is assisting Vilonia’s program through advocacy and helping to advise on skills needed to enter the construction industry. Later, Kinco will work with the district on the curriculum’s service-learning component and provide students with hands-on experiences. He said the industry has many paths for young people.
“There are multiple opportunities for great careers in the construction industry that pay well and have excellent benefits,” Wright said.
David Nabholz of Nabholz Construction, who will serve in a similar capacity as Kinco, spoke similarly as Wright. He said the program was “groundbreaking,” and added that the program provides “recognition” for the many careers the construction industry offers.
Hollis Bray, department chair of UA Little Rock’s construction management program, which has over 200 students and boasts a 100 percent job placement rate after graduation, said the construction worker shortage in Arkansas is causing delays and the need for out-of-state contractors which cost more money. He said he was excited about the program when he was first approached to help and added that the program will lead students to be prepared for any career field, construction or not. He also said he hopes the program will be a long-term recruitment tool for UA Little Rock’s construction management department.
In the first year of the program, Vilonia will be able to accept as many as 600 students for registration which will start in the spring. After the use of the grant money to fund startup costs, program operations will be funded through student attendance money and normal district funds.
Bray said industry employers specifically look for candidates from Arkansas.
“[Arkansas’] rural values attract employers to [the state],” Bray said.
If Vilonia’s program is successful, the industry could have more Arkansas candidates for years to come.