Encouraging Diversity In Construction's Work Force

Sept. 28, 2010

There is no doubt that the makeup of today's construction work force is changing. The idea of a "traditional" construction worker, if there ever was such a thing, is giving way to the notion of a diverse workforce drawing people from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

Is this new diversity working?

Many in the industry, including the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA), believe that it is — and they have the case studies to prove it.

There is no doubt that the makeup of today's construction work force is changing. The idea of a "traditional" construction worker, if there ever was such a thing, is giving way to the notion of a diverse workforce drawing people from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

Is this new diversity working?

Many in the industry, including the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia (CEFGA), believe that it is — and they have the case studies to prove it.

CEFGA is a nonprofit organization that encourages young people from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in the construction industry. Supported by construction companies and trade associations, CEFGA's efforts have indeed led to numerous "success stories" as people from a variety of backgrounds enter the workforce and go on to succeed.

Here's a look at some of those success stories.

Building A Construction Career One Brick At A Time

For a trio of DeKalb County high school seniors, knowledge and commitment are qualities just as important in pursuing a career in masonry as they are in the ancient construction craft itself.

Masons work with brick, concrete block or stone and may specialize in one or more of these materials. Stone and brick work demand the highest level of skill because the finished product is what the public sees, and each of these three students prefers working with brick for its skill challenge and versatility.

"With perseverance and a plan, you can create just about anything," says Darion Fox, a student at Chamblee High School. "I intend on pursuing a career in masonry, and everything I read said that the best way to start was through the masonry apprenticeship program."

After spending the morning in classroom study at their respective high schools, they go to the CEFGA-accredited DeKalb High School of Technology-North for three hours of construction training in masonry. After school on Tuesdays, they drive to the Masonry Association of Georgia's (MAG) facility in Decatur where they receive rigorous hands-on training in block and brick laying through the association's apprenticeship program. Those days don't wrap up until 7:30 p.m., but the three high school seniors consider the extra time a valuable investment in their futures.

"It's definitely worth it," says Tommy Bell, who attends Druid Hills High. "I can come out here and work on my technique by building practice walls. What we do here, learning by doing, fits really well with the classroom part."

The apprenticeship program consists of 432 hours of classroom and hands-on training divided into six semesters of 21 weeks each. Subjects include mason tending, brick and block laying, mortar composition and mixing, wall performance, tools and equipment, specialty products, preformed concrete products, stone work, and blueprint reading. To become certified by the Georgia Department of Labor, apprentices must also complete 6,000 hours of on-the-job training with a MAG participating contractor.

The apprenticeship program includes a job placement component, and apprentices commonly finish the three-year program while on the job. By getting started while still in high school, students get a head start on their careers that translates into higher pay because of their higher level of skill. In addition, notes Darion, since the apprenticeship program is focused entirely on masonry, "the tasks here are a little more advanced, and we have a little more time and a little more direct training."

When asked about masonry's appeal, DeAngelo Huntley of McNair High School echoed the feeling of many apprentices.

"I like working outdoors," he says. "I wouldn't want to be in an office all day. And I like working with my hands. I like the feeling of accomplishment when I've built something that will last."

Adds Tommy, "You can come back in 50 years, and whatever you made will still be there. That's pretty cool."

Because of their training, the three seniors will probably end up as masonry foremen, like many apprenticeship program graduates. This past January they entered the program with scholarships awarded on the basis of their performance at DeKalb High Tech and their desire to follow a career in masonry.

Tommy already feels confident enough in his skill to have participated in the SkillUSA Region Three competition this past February at Atlanta Tech, where he placed third.

"I was laying the final blocks and I could hear people saying, 'Look at him move!'" he laughed. "It was cool to be there laying block because most people don't do that until they're in their 30s."

Ray Wirth is the MAG instructor for the three apprentice masons.

"They've come a long way since the first week I met them here," says Wirth, who brings to the task more than three decades experience as a mason in Chicago and metro Atlanta. "I was taught how to do it right, so by teaching these guys I'm putting my 30-some years to use. We've got some good guys who are going to come out of this training, and in the long run that's what I'm here for, to get some quality guys back in the field."

Of course, anyone can buy the materials and tools, and look in a book or attend a workshop to figure out a way to lay brick, block or stone. But what separates amateurs from professionals is not only skill, but the professional pride in doing the job right.

"I say that's the most important aspect," says Darion. "You have to get all the training you can and then give it your best. That's the only way I can see success happening for me. I mean, if you don't give it your best, where are you going to go with that?"

Profile by Gary Goettling

Construction Student Returns To Spread The Word On Construction Careers

Six years after graduating from the construction program at DeKalb High School of Technology-North, Quincy R. Quarles surprised his former construction teacher, Calvin Gray, at the CEFGA Accreditation Awards Program.

Quincy, a surprise guest during the awards program, came back to thank Gray and to show him that his hard work as his teacher paid off.

Quincy also impressed the approximately 200 students at the Awards Program for DeKalb High School with his accomplishments. The students were able to see a living example that the construction training program at DeKalb High School really works.

Quincy enjoys helping family. He is a quiet and respectful young man who exudes "know-how." "I wanted a trade and an opportunity to make good money," said Quincy on what motivated him to get into construction. He has fulfilled both of his goals at the tender age of 25 as a journeymen electrician at Brooks-Berry-Haynie & Associates, Inc., an electrical contractor based in Mableton, Ga.

Over the last six years Quincy has worked on numerous commercial projects including Concourse E for the Department of Transportation, and he enjoys the challenges of his projects.

A foreman for Brooks-Berry-Haynie, David Holcomb, says, "Quincy is a very diligent and hard worker. He shows up on time. Quincy went beyond his training in school by getting his CDL license. By getting this license, Quincy is a more valuable employee."

Chuck Little with the Atlanta Electrical Contractors Association (AECA) introduced Quincy to the AEJATC (Atlanta Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee) apprenticeship program. The training is funded by contractors and jointly administered by AECA and IBEW. After encouragement from Calvin and the DeKalb High staff, he passed the test to enter the five-year apprenticeship program. He was able to work full-time and attend school part-time.

After some informal training in cabinet making, Quincy received his formal training exclusively through the construction program at DeKalb High School in 2000. Gray said, "Quincy showed leadership skills from the outset. He was dedicated and applied himself. Quincy always had good attendance, exceptional grades and a good attitude towards learning." Delores Washington, the principal at DeKalb High School, adds, "DeKalb High School made it possible for Quincy to have a seamless entry into a post-secondary school and was able to help him avoid any debt from attending college."

Quincy is very happy working as an electrician and will continue to grow within his current company. His long-term goal is to one day own his own company. But today, he's doing what he loves, getting paid well for it and living his dreams.

Profile by Nicole Scott

Realizing A Dream Of A Construction Career

Even as a child in Mexico, Sinue Tinoco wanted to work in construction when he grew up.

His family immigrated to Gainesville, and when he got to middle school he took a class in construction. He continued learning about the field as a student at Gainesville High School. Teachers told Tinoco how smart he was and encouraged him to go to University of Georgia on a scholarship, but Tinoco remained focused on his childhood dream.

Now, at 24, he is a safety engineer for Pizzagalli Construction Company. He works at the Linwood water treatment plant in Gainesville, which is on the home stretch of a $46-million reconstruction.

Tinoco has been on the site for two years and has been a vital part of the operation. He is responsible for making sure all workers maintain safety standards, such as wearing hard hats, and that the project is OSHA compliant. He is also cross-training workers with skills in one craft that could transfer to another.

"I've had opportunities here because I'm bilingual," he says.

His supervisor, Carl Schoolcraft, says Tinoco has other attributes that have helped him rise quickly in the company, namely people skills.

"We try to cultivate people who have the ability to work with other people without conflicts," he says.

Finding young people to groom for management positions isn't easy, Schoolcraft says. "We're giving our children such a broad vision of the world," he says, adding, "The kids have a lot more options, and they're exercising them."

Decades ago, sons followed their fathers into construction, motivated by the comfortable life the career affords. Today, many kids don't have the interest. Others don't have the work ethic.

But that has never been a problem for Tinoco. When his family came to Georgia, he learned English in less than a year and excelled in school. In high school, he took every possible construction class, including drafting. He worked part-time starting in seventh grade, cooking at restaurants and later delivering produce.

His parents worked long hours to support the family. His father worked at a poultry plant, and his mother worked in a factory. The family started in government housing and later moved into an apartment. Later, his parents became homeowners. His father made sure his children gained legal status.

When some of Tinoco's classmates preferred partying to studying, he stayed on track.

"Our parents have always been there for us," says Tinoco, the oldest of four. "They told us, 'We brought y'all here to succeed, not to be troublemakers.'"

After graduation, Tinoco studied construction at Gwinnett Tech. He was the youngest student in the class. Many were in their 40s and already had years of experience.

"I was green," he says.

He applied for his first construction job as a laborer. He didn't mind the hard work; he was used to it.

"My plans were to go from the bottom all the way to the top — to superintendent," he says.

After a few months of pouring concrete, he went to work for Pizzagalli, a company that allows employees to own shares in the business. Tinoco plans to have a long career with the company, eventually aspiring to a regional position. His next assignment will be a $250-million water treatment plant in Gwinnett County.

He is still in touch with his Gainesville High School construction teacher, Darrell Lucas, whom he credits with preparing him for his career. "He's intelligent, articulate and bilingual," Lucas says of Tinoco. "He's got the whole package."

Last fall, Lucas brought his current construction students for a tour of the water treatment plant — a tour that was led by his former student. The 45 students wore hard hats and got to learn about trades ranging from carpentry to plumbing.

Tinoco encourages young people to consider careers in his field. After all, jobs are plentiful, and the pay is much higher than young people make in the fast-food industry.

Many of Tinoco's friends from Gainesville High who went on to college are now saddled with debt and unsure what they want to do with their lives. Tinoco owns his home as well as a rental property. He and his younger brother Aldo, who also works in construction, run successful landscaping and concrete businesses on weekends.

Tinoco attributes his and his brother's success to his parents and friends from his church.

"Their advice and good example have helped us become responsible and productive young men," he says.

He knows the teachers who encouraged him to go to a traditional college had his best interests at heart, but he's glad he didn't take their advice. Looking out at the sprawling near-finished construction site, he says, "I'm doing what I always wanted to do."

Profile by Patti Ghezzi

For additional information on CEFGA and its construction education efforts, visit www.cefga.org.