Gone are the days when hosting a booth at the local job fair was all it took to convince high school students to seek a career in construction. After decades of relying on status-quo recruitment methods, the industry is looking to more creative, hands-on approaches to win over the next generation and improve its image as a place to build a career.
Over the past two decades, the pipeline of young workers entering the industry has slowed to a trickle. The main problem is a misperception of the industry and a lack of understanding of the jobs available, according to Brian Turmail, executive director of public affairs for the Associated General Contractors of America. "In modern construction, you're as likely to hold an iPad as a hammer, and we want people to see that," he says.
"It's time to think out of the box," Turmail adds. "Career fairs and expos are not enough. The best way to recruit is to expose young people and their parents to what life is like in construction and help them feel the thrill and the pride of building something."
While career days and mentoring programs remain a mainstay in high schools, a wave of start-them-young programs targets children as young as preschool age to cultivate a lifelong interest in building. Filling the void of bygone woodshop classes, programs across the country are utilizing everything from Legos to heavy construction equipment to nurture the creativity and enthusiasm of young builders, engineers and tinkerers.
At the ConstructionKids shop in Brooklyn, children prekindergarten age and older use real tools to construct projects like log cabins, playhouses, wigwams and even large-scale models of the Brooklyn Bridge, the White House, and the Empire State Building. The program offers a variety of summer camps and after-school activities—including the Buildings and Cities camp, where groups conceive cities, lay out the transportation grid and design infrastructure such as bridges, airports and water systems. During the week, the different group "cities" are connected to form an expansive metropolis that fills the warehouse workshop.
"We aren't necessarily taking a vocational leap with our program, but we're helping children develop the building skills, confidence and curiosity to take that leap on their own some day," says Deb Winsor, founder of ConstructionKids. Building upon 25 years in construction, Winsor started ConstructionKids in 2008 after she conducted a one-day building project at her son's preschool. Parents and teachers asked for more.
"I come from a family of architects and engineers. I grew up building things and taking things apart in my basement, but kids today are glued to computers and are not challenged with tactical projects," Winsor says. "It is important for children to learn to work through problems with their hands. It's becoming a lost art."
ConstructionKids is one of several building-themed programs. In the San Francisco area, after-school KidsCarpentry programs emphasize measuring, fractions and math while teaching elementary-age kids carpentry skills. The program recently expanded, with teachers hosting programs in Seattle and Minneapolis.
At the nonprofit Eliot School in Boston, children as young as four can take woodworking classes where they learn to measure and utilize basic hand tools. Middle-schoolers who attend sleepover summer camp at the Tinkering School in Northern California spend their days building and testing gadgets and projects—ranging from lashed pallet homes to two-story tree houses and PVC hang gliders.
In the absence of private programs, most communities can find children's building clinics at local hardware and home improvement stores. Both Lowe's and Home Depot, for example, are doing their part to develop a pipeline of future do-it-yourselfers with free clinics where children can build small-scale projects like bird houses and wooden cars.