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Get them while they’re young: programs that promote the construction industry target students

Turner uses one of its jobsites in Nashville to immerse middle-school teachers in the ins and outs of building.

October 24, 2019 |

Erik Smithson, a project manager with Turner Construction in Nashville, shares his experiences with middle school students. Turner and the local Chamber of Commerce run a two-week program that gives teachers insights into the construction industry. Image: Turner Construction

Talk to contractors in just about any town in the country, and the topic of labor shortages inevitably comes up. Many contractors see the problem as being chronic with no end in sight, at least while the economy remains strong. But there are companies that are trying to do something about it, with an eye toward cultivating the next generation of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and other construction laborers.

Earlier this month Lowe’s Cos., the giant home-improvement retailer, teamed with more than 60 partners to introduce Generation T, an effort to shift negative or indifferent perceptions about the trades among students and their parents by demonstrating mobility and career opportunities that skilled trades offer.  

Lowe’s and SkillsUSA hosted the first-ever Generation T Bunk Build at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif. This regional community service project provided 300 students enrolled in SkillsUSA’s carpentry program the chance to work with skilled carpenters to build 100 bunk beds for the nonprofit Sleep in Heavenly Place.

Last summer, Turner Construction’s Nashville office, in partnership with the Rutherford County (Tenn.) Chamber of Commerce, conducted a Teacher Externship Program, an immersive two-week course that gives local middle-school teachers exposure to the ins and outs of the construction industry, so they can share their experiences with their students.

This is the second year this program has been offered. The first year draw five teachers, and the second 20 participants, according to Paul Lawson, Project Executive of Turner Nashville.

Lawson—who chairs the Chamber’s Rutherford Works Construction Council and is a member of its Executive Workforce Council—says that the Teacher Externship Program is part of a larger effort by the Chamber and county to expand the market’s labor force.

The two-week program gave the teachers an inside look at how a construction company works. They spent time at Turner’s office with estimators and area managers. The teachers also went into the field at one of Turner’s local active job sites: a $48 million, 95,623-sf expansion of the St. Thomas Rutherford Hospital in Murfreesboro, Tenn., which is scheduled for completion next April.  (Gresham Smith is the architect and engineer on this project.)

Lawson says the teachers “shadowed” project managers, two engineers, two supervisors, and the project’s safety manager.

Turner Nashville intends to offer this program next summer, and Lawson would like to expand the course beyond two weeks, “which is pretty quick” for giving teachers with no previous construction knowledge or hands-on understanding about what’s involved in building a building.

The program, he says, “has helped to open their eyes to what construction really is, and to dispel misconceptions about construction work,” says Lawson. “A teacher can have an impact on, what, 60 students a year.”

For teacher David Duez, the program was a revelation that he shared with his eighth-grade Career Explorations class through a series of lessons. “The kids are very interested in it,” he says. “They are young, but it doesn’t hurt to throw as much as we can at them, and if something sticks, great.”

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