Workforce development invites students to work on Target store remodel

The construction industry faces a stark shortage of workers, but programs and people across the country are working at the local level to solve the problem. This series will highlight the grassroots efforts helping to recruit the next generation of construction pros. Read previous entries here.

Do you know of a group that is helping to attract workers to the construction industry? Let us know.

Pride. It’s a sentiment those in the construction industry are familiar with, and try to use as a selling point to potential employees: the ability to point out a structure and say “I built this.”

That’s why St. Louis-based workforce development initiative company ConstructReach named one of its programs after that proud exclamation. 

In partnership with project owners, contractors and schools, ConstructReach hosts “I Built This!” events that bring high school students onto construction jobsites so they can contribute to the work and get a sense for a career in the trades. The organization is on track to host five such events this year.

Targeting youth

Ebony Robinson, ConstructReach’s director of community relations and business development, said her job is to reposture the way employers and potential workers communicate about the industry. 

“Man, construction does not look like the 1970s. It’s not just a hard hat and a hammer,” Robinson said. There is a lot more that’s exciting about construction work than some students realize, she added, including high-tech elements like virtual reality and BIM.

The “I Built This!” event arose several years ago, Robinson said, from a ConstructReach partnership with Target, when the massive retailer wanted to include input from the community surrounding its stores in St. Louis. It has since continued the partnership with its other stores in the region.

Last month, 99 high school students from area workforce development programs and school districts participated in elements of a Kansas City, Missouri, Target stores’ remodel. Their work included glimpses into carpentry, plumbing, design, technology and mechanics, while they learned from professionals about local programs, schools, internships and job opportunities in the industry.

The Target was built in a low-income community located in the northern part of Kansas City, according to Gyasi Haynes, director of operations for St. Louis-based KAI Build, the contractor on the project.

Haynes said he grew up in a community not dissimilar to that area, and he knew that the opportunity to build in the area and see the impact of work would positively affect nearby residents — a sentiment Robinson echoed.

“If we look at our radius from our houses, we all have our favorite stores,” Robinson said. The pride of knowing you contributed to the remodel makes you feel like you have more of a stake in your surroundings, she added.

Properly informing the students

Students often pursue college or other educational tracks for a career that they’ve heard about from a relative or friend, said Shannon Shelton, assistant director of work-based learning for North Kansas City Schools. 

“However, there are thousands of careers that go unnoticed and/or unheard of because of lack of knowledge and knowing the community,” said Shelton. Students from the four schools in her district attended the September event. “The more we can expose students the better they will be prepared to make informed decisions for life after high school.”

Robinson, a Black woman, noted construction’s poor diversity numbers — just 6% of U.S. construction workers are Black — and said targeting underrepresented groups is one of ConstructReach’s priorities. And the program isn’t just looking for people interested in the trades specifically.

“I want the students in the [Career Technical Education] pathway and the students that know nothing. I want the students with an entrepreneurial spirit. I want to go after the marketing and communications person,” Robinson said, adding those skills are in demand since the industry is largely based on relationships. Students introduced to construction via the “I Built This!” program may find themselves interested in other parts of construction beyond the skilled trades, she noted.

Lasting impact

During the last four to five years, Robinson said, “I Built This!” has led to a little over 10 students pursuing construction careers, and ConstructReach is growing the program.

That may seem like a small amount, but Robinson said her best advice to those looking to recruit is not to just fill a hardhat and check a box. She described the labor shortage as a “crisis” and said employers need to learn to recruit, manage and sustain a young workforce. Haynes echoed that sentiment.

“It’s not just important. It’s imperative, as the baby boomers are retiring out, we need to get these young people interested in the industry,” he said.

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