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More than Providing an Education, New Trade School Helps Students Find Meaning in Industry Work

BY LISA KOPOCHINSKI

With a goal to equip students with the employability and technical skills required for employment and/or advanced training in construction and related fields, the Riverchase Career Connection Skilled Trades Academy in Birmingham, Alabama, is off to a great start.

Riverchase Career Connection Center Director Dr. Ron Dodson and AGC President Rachel Harvey “talk shop” in front of the entrance of the new center. PHOTO COURTESY OF AGC OF ALABAMA

Hundreds of people showed up in August for the dedication ceremony for the Hoover School System’s new Riverchase Career Connection Center. Dubbed RC3 for short, the 92,000-square-foot facility — formerly used as a middle school for Shelby County and later Pelham — offers five career academies focused on health science; fire and emergency services; cyber innovation (computer programming, software development, software analysis, network security and network administration); food and hospitality; and skilled trades (carpentry electrical work, welding and HVAC).

The Skilled Trades Academy is providing students with basic knowledge and skills in a safe and appropriate setting for both student exploration and achievement. With approximately 750 students enrolled so far —
and more on the waiting list — the structured environment simulates the workplace setting and helps students adapt to an ever-changing job market. With an emphasis on job safety, use of hand tools and stationary power tools, material and hardware, various types of joinery and component assembly and installation, students become skilled in different phases of a project from start to finish. The center services 10th, 11th and 12th grade students from Hoover, Spain Park and Homewood high schools.

“The AGC has been a huge part of why this building exists,” says RC3 Director Dr. Ron Dodson. “Because of them, we have a lot of equipment coming to get the kids to work. We are also working with AGC members to help find teachers from the industry.”

Dodson says the Hoover School System was all about putting kids in college. Then the economy started to shift, and educational needs changed.

“Half of our graduates are going to college and accumulating college debt and not getting good-paying jobs. So, we wanted to create a place where we could build a workforce that benefits the kids and area industry.”

AGC of Alabama Manager Bill Caton agrees and says a facility like RC3 is definitely about good-paying jobs, but it’s about even more than that.

Students are decked out in AGC PPE. PHOTO COURTESY OF AGC OF ALABAMA

“This is about an education for these students that provides a path to a fulfilling career,” says Caton “It’s about more than just work. It’s about finding meaning in skill in a complex and critical process.”

Caton calls the RC3 and specifically, the Skilled Trades Academy, an exciting concept that will allow students to learn about the construction trades in a simulated work environment.

“Teachers will be from the industry and offer practical insight on how to perform the complex tasks that are required to build all non-residential construction. Hoover and the industry have made a commitment to create the best possible learning environment for these students. It is exciting because it is an unparalleled investment in the lives of these students.”

AGC has been involved in this project from the beginning — helping to coordinate industry efforts and provide significant financial assistance.

The new Riverchase Career Connection Skilled Trades Academy in Birmingham, Alabama is providing students with basic knowledge and skills in a safe and appropriate setting for both student exploration and achievement.

“AGC is buying educational equipment, involving contractors such as Brasfield & Gorrie, Marathon Electrical and Hardy and helping identify teachers,” says Caton. “We are involved in every aspect of the project. Our contractors will be offering assistance from providing materials to internships and ultimately full-time jobs and careers. AGC will be organizing and promoting all aspects of the program, including connecting students with employers.”

COURSES OFFERED

The new Skilled Trades Academy is both open and modern. Complex projects will be out in the open for all students to see. Students will work with everything from hammers and saws to virtual reality. It is a high-ceilinged, spacious, inviting place where students feel appreciated and can learn to appreciate the skills that will become a career.

A wide range of courses are being offered that includes the following:

•   NCCER Core Curriculum: Architecture, Construction and Manufacturing
•   NCCER Building Construction 1
•   NCCER Electrical Technologies 1
•   NCCER HVAC 1
•   NCCER Welding 1

Credentials offered include:

•   NCCER Core
•   NCCER Carpentry Level 1
•   NCCER Electrical Level 1
•   NCCER HVAC Level 1
•   NCCER Welding Level 1
•   OSHA 10

“It’s important for the non-residential construction industry to be directly involved in craft education,” explains Caton.

“Building commercial buildings, highways and utilities is complex work, and it requires highly skilled craftsmen. There is a tremendous need for skilled craftspeople for all trades. AGC of Alabama is directly involved in this project, but we are also working to bring in other industry partners, such as Go Build Alabama to help recruit students and the Craft Training Board to help provide additional long-term funding.”

When asked why he thinks students are drawn to the Skilled Trades Academy, Caton doesn’t hesitate.

“The construction industry is dynamic and high-paying. The opportunity to do challenging work and literally see what you have accomplished is extremely appealing in a career. The facility is first class and will provide an excellent learning environment. Space matters, and Hoover and the industry have created a magnificent learning environment. One look around and a student will know that the trades and the education are treated with respect.”

CONSTRUCTION IS BIG BUSINESS IN ALABAMA

Non-residential construction is a huge player in Alabama, representing $5.5 billion of spending in 2016. The industry contributed $7.7 billion, which represents 3.8 percent of the state’s GDP in 2016.

Alabama construction workers’ pay averages $50,500, which represents 15 percent more than all private sector employers in the state. In fact, construction wages and salaries totaled $4 billion in Alabama in 2016.

Construction represents businesses large and small. There were 7,300 construction firms in Alabama in 2015, and 89 percent of those employed fewer than 20 workers.

Caton says not only is it important for students to experience “real world” situations at an early age, it is crucial. This is something that is very much emphasized at the Skilled Trades Academy.

“The AGC has been a huge part of why this building exists. Because of them, we have a lot of equipment coming to get the kids to work.”

~ RC3 Director Dr. Ron Dodson

“It’s a time-honored idea that students hear from people who have done the job. This includes hands-on experience led by craftsmen. Also, soft skills are a key component to a high school education. Learning to be on time and be prepared to work when the day begins are crucial to success. Learning to respect the job and understand that respect is earned also is critical.”

Dodson concurs and adds, “We had hoped to have 400 kids this first year, and we opened with 735 students. Everything here is based on employability. Kids can and do get ‘fired’ from this program. But, if they invest time with us, we’ll pay it back to them.”