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With More Construction Jobs Than Workers, Students Build Careers By Building Houses

Across the country, construction firms say they’re having a hard time finding skilled workers. In eastern Iowa, a coalition of companies and educators is trying to grow the next generation of builders by teaching them early.

Business is good at the Riverside-based McCreedy Ruth Construction company. The firm does custom homebuilding and remodleing, mostly. It's a practical career, says co-owner Tim Ruth, and the pay is good.

“I have a young man working for me that’s 30 years old. He just built a new home of his own. It’s his second home, not his first," Ruth said. "And he has no college debt because he worked for us all the way through college. And he makes 60-some thousand dollars a year.”

But it can be a scramble to fill jobs. A survey released this week by the Associated General Contractors of America shows 91% of Iowa construction firms are having a hard time hiring workers.

Ruth says that means his projects often take longer, and cost more.

“There’s not enough workers. And we see it in everything," Ruth said. "If you walked up to anybody today in the trades and said, ‘Do you need to hire people? How many would you take?’ There’s nobody that’d tell you 'nobody'.”

Ruth sees this breakdown in the workforce development pipeline as an education issue. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the amount of time students are spending in academic classes has gone up since 1990, while time spent on career and technical ed has gone done.

Now Ruth is teaming up with other firms and Kirkwood Community College to run a trades program for high schoolers. Led by thelocal homebuilders’ association, it’s a chance for students to do a lot more than swing a hammer.

"If you walked up to anybody today in the trades and said, 'Do you need to hire people? How many would you take?' There's nobody that'd tell you 'nobody'." - Tim Ruth, contractor

Over the summer and into this fall, students from six different schools are helping build a house in south Iowa City.

The program used to be managed under the Iowa City Community School District, but funding dried up about ten years ago. Unfilled job openings are spurring the industry to bring the program back online.

Durant High School senior Jake Nietfeldt recently made the trip over to Iowa City to help out with some more painting work on the house. 

“I set the exterior walls. I set some of the interior walls. I sheeted the roof. I’ve put some backing up," Nietfeldt said. "I’ve basically done, almost everything they’ve done in the house, I’ve helped with.”

He says working at the site is a chance figure out what he likes and what he doesn’t.

“Once you get on a roof, and it’s steep. Well it’s not really steep. I thought it was steep. Others did not. And you’re walking and you’re carrying plywood? It’s scary. It is scary. Especially when the wind is blowing? Then it’s even worse," Nietfeldt said, laughing.

Ultimately this building will be a group home for adults with special needs, managed by the local non-profit organization Reach For Your Potential.

Students at the site are getting paid, earning community college credit, and on-the-job experience with potential future employers.

Durant High School junior Trace Seligman already has his career path sketched out. His father and sister are also in the consruction industry, and his mother is a union insulator. He says he grew up surrounded by this work.

“I want to start out building houses like this that we just did. And then probably get into the union and do commercial stuff. That’s the plan at least,” Seligman said.

Even before he's gotten his high school diploma, Trace has already gotten multiple job offers, including from Tim Ruth, the contractor. 

“I talked to Tim who’s doing this and he said he’d hire me if I ever wanted to get a job after high school," Seligman said.

Once he accepts one his offers, he expects to start work right out of high school.

"That to me is the biggest problem I have, is getting parents to realize that your kid doesn't have to go to college to get a good paying job." - Tim Rouse, Durant High School teacher

That’s exactly what Tim Rouse wants to hear. He’s Trace’s shop teacher at Durant High School, and helping oversee the student-built house program. He says this kind of on-the-job experience means kids can go straight to work, if they want.

“Several of the kids have already said, ‘Yeah I think I’m going to college’. But now that they’re starting to do some of these things, they’ve realized they don’t have to go to college to get a job doing this stuff,” Rouse said.

Rouse says too many students, and parents, see the trades as a fallback, not a career.

“So if we can work on parents, that’s my biggest thing," Rouse said. "That to me is the biggest problem I have, is getting parents to realize that your kid doesn’t have to go to college to get a good paying job.”

Federal numbers from 2009 show occupational workers are 4 percent more likely than academics to be employed. And they’re much more likely to stay in that field. Rouse says he knows first-hand that some higher degrees don’t have the earning power they used to.

“Making $50, 60, 70,000 a year! I don’t even make that and I’ve got nine years of education and I’ve been working for 30 years and I don’t even make that!” Rouse said, somewhat exasperated.

Whether they go straight to work, get a two year degree, or even go to a university, Rouse hopes he can get more students on track to a career earlier. And that they put down roots and stay in their communities.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter