Building the Next Generation

High school construction trades program is training a new generation of professionals.

Over the years BUILD Des Moines has published several stories about the severe shortage of qualified laborers in the construction trades. Everyone seems to acknowledge the crisis, but few have offered concrete solutions.

Some grass roots efforts in central Iowa are being made to change the situation. One of the best is the construction trades program at Dallas Center-Grimes (DCG) High School.

The Past

Now in its seventh year, the DCG construction trades program began when the school’s principal approached tech ed instructor Travis Donahue about developing a curriculum that’s specifically modeled after real-life construction trades. “They’d had a similar program at a previous school district where he worked, and he thought, with the way Grimes is growing, it seemed like a good time to try it here,” Donahue explains.

The district partnered with the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) to develop a curriculum that complemented the college’s building trades program and then began looking for business partners to help implement that curriculum.

Donahue contacted local supplier Beisser Lumber of Grimes and found the ideal cohort in Ben Richter. “I was fairly new at Beisser when Travis was getting this started,” Richter says. “My boss thought it would be a good fit for me to work with Travis and the kids—maybe because Travis and I were both football players. Whatever it was, it worked. I’ve been in on every project since then.”

The school district partnered with Beisser Lumber and a number of other local subcontractors and suppliers on that first project in 2006–2007, completing a ranch home that sold before the school year was out.

“That first project was fairly simple,” Donahue says. “It was our first house, and we didn’t want to push it too much while we were still learning how to run and operate the program.”

Things have grown significantly since then.

The Present

As soon as each school year concludes, Donahue and the other members of the advisory committee, which includes volunteer representatives like Richter and others in the community or in the trades, begin planning the next project.

“We have to find the lot, choose a plan, and get everything ready to begin the next house as soon as school starts in the fall, so it’s a tight schedule all year,” Donohue explains. The school district purchases the lot and materials, and the sale of each home repays that investment, as well as providing funds for additional equipment as it is needed.

This year’s project is one of the partnership’s most ambitious, a ranch home with finished basement in Dallas Center. And Donahue says it turned into a nearly custom home job when it sold just after the first of the year.

“We were already working on the house when one of the neighbors approached us about buying it. They had a two-story home down the street and were looking for a single-level home but liked the neighborhood,” Donahue explains. “The big change for us was learning how to frame a basement and adjusting the schedule to get it all done on time because we were finishing almost twice as much square footage as we originally planned.”

This is one of the greatest learning experiences the program offers: teaching the students to adapt to a changing schedule and to learn as they go.

“We tear stuff apart all the time if it’s not just right or if I want them to do it better. Sometimes that’s the best way to learn,” Donohue says. “One of the best things about the program is that more than just the hands-on experience, the kids are working under professionals who’ve been doing this for years. Every one of our subcontractors supports what we’re doing. They come in and teach the kids how to frame, how to do trim work, how to install windows, and then the kids get to do it themselves.”

In fact, students in their second year of the program serve as leads for the new students, teaching them the skills the seniors developed the year before.

To participate, students must be in their junior or senior year of high school and must have completed some prerequisite courses. They’re also required to complete an application process and submit references.

“We’ve worked with the faculty at DMACC to design the program in conjunction with the building trades degree,” explains Donahue. “Students who complete our program in both their junior and senior years graduate from Dallas Center-Grimes with 15 DMACC credits and get placed at the top of the list for a spot in the DMACC program if they choose to enroll there, which is a great deal.”

The Future

Enrollment in the DCG program has ranged from 9 to 21 students in a semester over the years, with only one female participating so far. “I’d love to see more girls participatein the program,” Donahue says. “Even if they have no interest in going directly into the trade, working on these construction projects makes them better, more knowledgeable homeowners, whether they are male or female.”

“This was not a hard sell for us at Beisser Lumber,” says Richter. “It not only benefits the kids, the program is beneficial to us because we get more knowledgeable people in the workplace.”
Graduates of the DCG program have gone on to study building trades at such schools as DMACC, the University of Northern Iowa, and Iowa State University. And employers such as Beisser, Hubbell Homes, and a number of subcontractors are reaping the benefits as well. Former students take their hands-on experience into the workforce.

Students like senior Reed Hillenga leave high school with clearer direction about their own future. “I enrolled in the program because I like working with my hands and I was interested in construction,” he says. “I definitely will use what I’ve learned here. I’m going to the University of Northern Iowa next year and majoring in construction management.”

Hillenga says the opportunity to learn every step of home construction was a real plus. “We do about 80% of the work—everything from trim work, installing cabinets, building the stairs, everything.”

Other students who are still undecided about future careers have also benefited from the program.

Grant Thompson, a senior at DCG, was new to the program this year. “I wanted to try something new, and I’d heard good things about the program,” he says. “I’m way more inclined to consider something in the construction trades now. I learned more in this class than in anything else I’ve done.”

Jaime Bond, also a senior, enrolled in the program for the first time this year because he didn’t know what he wanted to do after high school. “I wanted to take something that I could maybe jump right into, and this gave me some experience working with my hands.” Though he hated roofing in the snow, Bond says the experience was worth it and the class helped him focus on some specific jobs that interested him.

Donahue adds, “Even kids who don’t plan to go into the construction trades leave here qualified for a better-paying summer job. We’ve got one student who will be working with our foundation contractor this summer and others who are possibly getting summer jobs with our electrician and our plumber.”

Richter says, “It’s a win-win. The suppliers, the contractors, the industry in general benefit from teaching these kids hands-on skills so they can hit the ground running. And the kids benefit because they get a realistic sense of what it’s like from having worked on every stage of the construction process.”

Many people in the industry may be lamenting the lack of skilled workers and the need to draw more young people into the trades. But partnerships like the one between Dallas Center-Grimes and Beisser Lumber are quietly doing something about it. And they’re doing it very well.

Want to get involved or learn more?

Visit the Dallas Center-Grimes website or contact Travis Donahue.