By Laura Raines
For the AJC
The recession has hurt every industry, but construction has been on the “bleeding edge of job losses,” said Ken Simpson, an economist with the Associated General Contractors of America. In January 2011, the construction unemployment rate hit 22.5 percent, according to the AGC’s analysis of federal employment data.
Does that spell an end to future building careers?
Not according to industry professionals from more than 300 Georgia companies who are helping to sponsor the seventh annual CEFGA (Construction Education Foundation of Georgia) CareerExpo on March 17-18 at the Georgia International Convention Center. They’ll be showcasing career pathways in architecture, construction, energy and facilities management to more than 4,000 middle, high school and college students and 2,000 teachers, instructors and adult attendees.
“There are career opportunities now, and even more down the road, because Georgia is a desirable location. People want to move here, and we’re always going to need more buildings,” said Scott Shelar, executive director of CEFGA. “Right now, contractors are working on a twin-unit nuclear reactor project near Augusta, and they have had trouble finding skilled welders.”
He’s seeing more demand for HVAC technicians, plumbers and roofers grow, as well.
While many jobs have been lost with the recession, half of the construction worker population are baby boomers and will be retiring in the next five to 10 years, Shelar noted. CEFGA’s mission is to help students explore the many career paths in the industry and the training and educational programs available, to ensure a pipeline of future talent.
“This event is great for showing young people the many aspects of this industry and for letting technical college and university students network with future employers,” said Theresa Schroeder, community affairs director with Turner Construction Co., a leading international contractor with offices in Atlanta.
While Turner Construction has shifted its focus from private commercial business to schools and government projects during the downturn, the company is building and hiring.
“We have an aggressive internship program and recruit college graduates every year. The number fluctuates with the need, but we intend to be ready when the economy comes back,” said Schroeder. “Buildings are still going up all over the world. If you’ve got a passion for building and a desire to learn, your skills could take you around the world. Getting the right education is key.”
Students at the CareerExpo will explore the industry through interactive, hands-on exhibits that will simulate the construction of Arabia Mountain High School in Lithonia, Georgia’s first LEED-certified green public school.
They’ll enter the "construction site" to learn about safety and don hard hats. As they move through five areas -- Design It, Green It, Build It, Energize It and Operate It -- they’ll see how the various trades and professions work together to complete a project. They might lay some brick, do some carpentry or drive heavy equipment simulators.
They’ll also learn about building, engineering and architectural programs at Georgia’s technical colleges and universities, and industry-sponsored apprenticeship programs.
“We hope that going through the expo will cause students to look at their own school building differently afterwards and to realize how many skills and different occupations went into it,” said Shelar.
For many, the rewards of construction are seeing the results of your work and knowing that “you have left a footprint that changed the face of your city,” said Schroeder. Today, young people are often attracted to construction’s new emphasis on green and sustainable technologies and materials, she said. They see it as a way of making a difference in the environment.
Or they see how technology plays a role in design. In building information modeling, for instance, workers create 3-D blueprints on computers that allow companies to solve construction problems long before crews are on-site. “The industry has changed so much, and there are so many aspects to it. It’s not just a guy hanging off a wall with a hammer,” said Schroeder.
The field has always offered rich soil for the entrepreneurial spirit, said Shelar. “Rarely does a bank teller go on to own the bank, but it’s not uncommon for an electrician to start his own electrical contracting company,” he said.
“You can own your own business and make very good money,” said John Doherty, president of the CEFGA Board and president of Pyramid Masonry Contractors, a leading Southeastern firm based in Atlanta.
Knowing that there are opportunities and wanting to attract the best and brightest to masonry, Doherty works with the CEFGA and the Masonry Association of Georgia, which has an apprenticeship program.
“We are looking for people who take construction classes as a first career choice, not a last resort,” he said. If they get the right skills and education, he knows they can go far.
With a father in the lumber business, Doherty grew up in the industry.
“I think I was the only building construction major at Georgia Tech in 1969 -- it was a relatively new major then,” he said. “I worked for a general contractor for seven years, and then C.L. Cook brought me into Pyramid Masonry and we’ve grown the business to be one of the top five in the Southeast, according to Engineering News-Record. This industry has been very good to me.”
Recently, he’s seen it weather the longest downturn since the 1970s. “We’ve seen people retire early or leave to do something else, but when things start to trend up, we’re going to see a distinct shortage of craft people,” he said.
He still believes the industry to be very viable. “Buildings are a resource that has to be replenished,” he said. “I’m seeing more private work go out for bid, and as things trend up, we’re going to see opportunities increase.”