October 3, 2009 in Washington Voices

High school students try out construction careers

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Video: Construction Career Day
The Spokesman-Review photo

U-Hi senior Aaron Neely drives a Bobcat at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center during Construction Career Day.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

On the Web: See a video of Construction Career Day, which showcases the work of the construction trades to 800-plus juniors and seniors from Eastern Washington.

www.spokesman.com/video/

Growing up to be a bricklayer or heavy equipment operator isn’t on a lot of to-do lists for local high school students.

For the fourth year, local construction companies teamed to host hundreds of students at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center for a Construction Career Day to expose them to careers they might not have considered.

Spokane Public Schools organizes a large consortium of schools from as far away as Methow Valley and Kettle Falls, while Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors recruits companies to bring their equipment for teens to operate. The Washington State Department of Transportation is also a major partner.

On Tuesday and Wednesday a swarm of teenagers wearing orange vests, hard hats, safety goggles and ear plugs eagerly stood in short lines to get a chance to run everything from Bobcats to backhoes to huge road graders.

University High School junior Ronnie Lewis had a look of concentration on his face as he shifted around buckets of sand in a small Bobcat. “I heard it was fun,” he said when asked why he asked to attend the event.

Becca Franklin, also a junior at University High School, said she is interested in a construction career. She used a crane to lift a heavy bucket and drop it back to the ground inside a circle painted in the dirt and also was able to operate a jackhammer. “It’s really fun,” she said. “You get to break cement blocks.”

She came away from the event with more of an idea of what she’d like to do. “I would love to run heavy equipment,” she said.

Alex Rodriguez, a junior at Rogers High School, is a three-year veteran of the career day event. She’s also worked summer jobs with her father, who works in the construction industry. She took a turn running a large road grader, using the blade to scrape the earth, and said she enjoyed the chance to “experiment with the big toys.”

Rodriguez doesn’t need much convincing to see that construction is for her. “I’ve always thought of it as a possibility,” she said. “The bigger the toys, the more fun.”

University High School physical education teacher Mike Hawkinson was along for the ride as a chaperon. “A lot of these things they don’t know they’re a natural at until they come here and try it,” he said.

Most schools emphasize academics rather than vocational careers, but there was still a lot of interest in the career day. The school was limited to 25 students. “We could have fielded double that,” Hawkinson said. “We just wish we could bring more.”

The Army’s 659th Engineering Reserve Company made an appearance at the career day for the first time. The soldiers build airfields, heliports and roads, and brought plenty of their camouflage-painted equipment. The students, however, could only look but not touch. Everything happened at the last minute and there was no time to get permission to have students run the equipment, said Lt. Frederick Alf. But the unit plans to come back next year with equipment that can be used.

Students also got a chance to do hands-on work with welding, bricklaying and other skills.

The event went down as another success in the eyes of AGC executive director Wayne Brokaw. He said the event really does work and he knows of several former career day attendees who have gone on to construction careers. He remembers one girl in particular who fell in love with running a backhoe. “She’s now working with an excavating company,” he said.

The event also gives kids a positive experience by letting them do something they would never able to do otherwise. Teenagers just don’t get a chance to run heavy equipment, but it can be done safely at the event with experienced operators within arm’s reach. “They walk away saying ‘I did that,’ ” he said. “It opens a whole new world for them.”

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