Students learn they can have great careers without college

Nearly 1,300 students attended what was billed as the nation's largest construction and maintenance career fair, which targets students who want to get to work right out of high school. Jason Wheeler reports.

Students often hear about the necessity of going to college. But Wednesday, a large group of DFW area students heard an alternative message – you don't need to go to college to get a great career.

They filed into a cavernous warehouse where hundreds of skilled laborers of all sorts hammered and welded and sawed. It was a demonstration, but those workers were essentially building a great big "We are hiring" sign.

"This event is great for kids like me and many others who just want to start working right out of high school," said Birdville High School student Stephen George, who is interested in being an electrician. "I like electrical because you have to use your brains for it."

George was one of 1,300 students from 40 area schools being recruited at what is billed as the nation's largest construction and maintenance career fair.

"They need kids like us," George said. And he's right.

During the Great Recession, when there wasn't much work in the construction industry, there was a great exodus of blue collar workers like welders, plumbers, drywall hangers and the like. Now, the economy is back, but there is still a shortage, according to Marek Brothers President John Hinson, Jr. 

"All those people are not there anymore and we have to train people and there is a shortage of them," he said. "We need tradespeople, craftsmen; we need artists that build things." 

Hinson added that the shortage of different skilled laborers is so severe that many new developments are stalling. "It's happening at every job we have going right now," he said. Further, he said the industry expects to be short half a million such laborers in the Southwest alone by the year 2020.

One of the problems facing businesses that need blue collar workers now is that they have some serious competition.

"Our kids today are trained that they have to go to college to have a productive career," says Randy Humphrey, Executive Vice President of Humphrey and Associates.Humphrey explained. "We're trying to plant seeds," with these kids that they can have a career without college and still have "great pay, have great benefits…a retirement program and a 401k."

He says many of the high school graduates could get a job as apprentices right after graduation, earning around $12 per hour. They would learn on the job, and would be able to attend free classes to earn their certification thanks to a public-private partnership between the Construction Education Foundation (CEF), individual employers, and the North Lake College (a division of the Dallas County Community College District).

Humphrey said that within about four years on the job, many of those workers would be earning about the same amount of money annually as their friends who went off to college and got a degree and a job. Beyond that, he said, "We have employees paying taxes on over $100,000 a year as a field electrician." And a bonus, Humphrey said, is that the skilled trade workers, unlike many of their college-going counterparts, don't accrue a mountain of student loan debt.

It's an ideal fit for young people like John Berry, a senior at Colleyville Heritage High School. 

"I think it's something I could do because it's so hands on and I like working with my hands," he said. 

While college and a desk job are not really for him, he said Wednesday he found several careers that could be.


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