Durham employers, educators, elected officials, others convene to begin planning how to build a strong skilled trades talent pipeline

May 24, 2018
Community members gather amid hard hats and construction equipment at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability to plan for the new skilled trades talent pipeline initiative.

Construction trades are the second-highest in-demand talent need behind life sciences in the Triangle and across North Carolina, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce. Nationwide, retiring Baby Boomers are expected to create a need for 31 million new skilled trades workers by 2020.

Local employers, educators, government officials, representatives of youth-serving nonprofits and philanthropists convened at Southern School of Energy and Sustainability May 24 to begin planning how to meet that demand, creating opportunities for Durham young people and a robust skilled trades talent pipeline for the community.

“It’s an opportunity to meet a business need for workers and an opportunity for students, especially those who do not plan to go to college, to enter the workforce,” said Rick Sheldahl, director of Career & Technical Education for Durham Public Schools.

DPS Superintendent Dr. Pascal Mubenga said the community has clearly called for the school system to better prepare young people for the workforce.

“For years, we’ve been emphasizing four-year college,” Mubenga said. “But with vocational skills, we can have a student graduate and enter the workforce making $55,000 a year.”

Conveners discussed potential curriculum, planning and administration, and marketing of a new skilled trades pre-apprenticeship program that would teach high school juniors and seniors the core knowledge and experience critical for any skilled trade along with exposure and experience to the workplace, from job shadowing to internships.

Local employers would provide knowledgeable class speakers on specific trades and skills and opportunities for exposure to jobs and careers, ensuring a tight alignment of curriculum and the workplace. An extensive marketing effort would focus on changing the negative mindset of parents, school counselors and students about construction trades that now keeps many young people from considering them as career options.

“Image is a big issue,” said Rick Whitaker, president of Brown Brothers Plumbing and Heating Co. Inc. “People still think of construction as a dumb man’s trade.” Planning and executing multi-million-dollar construction projects takes extensive knowledge and expertise, he says. And that expertise is rewarded with good pay, benefits, health insurance and career opportunities in a growing employment sector.

Riggs-Harrod Builders Inc. project manager Tim Cothran agreed.

“You can make a great living,” Cothran said. “I have carpenters making $35,000-$40,000 a year, masons making $50,000 a year and supervisors making $65,000 a year.”

As next steps, the group will identify a small group of employers, educators and others who can drive the process forward. The goal is to launch a program at Southern in the 2019-2020 school year that will graduate 75 students by 2022 ready to go to work in the industry, enter apprenticeship programs with local employers and pursue specific skills training at Durham Technical Community College.

A proposed program outline will be developed that includes budget, timeline and desired outcomes, along with a needs assessment that will drive specific asks for industry and partners, and a map of existing resources currently available to support the program.

For more information or to get involved, contact Ondrea Austin, lead workforce coordinator for DPS Career and Technical Education, at (919) 560-3858 or ondrea.austin@dpsnc.net.

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