Students from Innovation Central High School spent part of a day touring a residential development and speaking with construction workers about employment opportunities. Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Schools
Construction professionals recently gave more than 100 local high school freshman students the grand tour of a multi-stage residential project to expose them to the various aspects and opportunities in the industry.
The Associated Builders and Contractors Western Michigan Chapter, in collaboration with C.D. Barnes Construction, Zeeland Lumber and the LaCati Group, welcomed roughly 110 Innovation Central High School freshmen onsite at 5985 Cascade Ridge SE in the Ridges of Cascade development Jan. 13 to promote the school’s Academy for Design and Construction and hopefully provoke their interest in the industry.
Sophomore students at the high school select one of four academic programs that incorporates a curriculum tailored to a specific theme: Health Sciences and Technology; Modern Engineering; Business, Leadership and Entrepreneurship; and Design and Construction.
The design and construction academy exposes students to hands-on learning, mentorships and professional internships in addition to integrating architecture, engineering, design and construction elements into its classes.
Jen Schottke, membership and marketing director at Associated Builders and Contractors Western Michigan Chapter, said the tour was prompted by Grand Rapids Public Schools, Innovation Central High School and members of the advisory council for the Academy for Design and Construction to encourage students to think about choosing the design and construction track.
“The tour is a recruitment tool,” said Schottke. “It really stemmed from an advisory council meeting … when teachers said (they) were looking for projects that would be interesting to the students.”
Ridges of Cascade was selected so students could view the entire construction process, from foundation and framing to installed drywall, according to Schottke. The multi-family residential apartment community is located within the Forest Hills school district and features one-, two- and three-bedroom units.
“Ridges was really selected because it could show all the different stages of construction because it is a multi-building, multi-staged project,” said Schottke.
Two of the partners working on Ridges of Cascade are C.D. Barnes Construction and LaCati Group, while Zeeland Lumber works as a contractor. Jonathan Stoner, C.D. Barnes’ site manager, said 10 of the 24 buildings of Ridges of Cascade currently are completed and the rest are in varying stages of construction, and it was a great opportunity for students to be able to walk through and see the stages.
“We were able to basically show the four stages,” said Stoner. “As a company, we are on board with getting young people both exposed to the construction industry and doing our part to let them know there are good career opportunities to be had in the construction industry.”
Chad Cassidy, president of LaCati Group and project developer, said visuals are very important for students in terms of absorbing information.
“We really are doing a project that is part of the community, part of the neighborhood, and part of that is helping however we can in terms of education in the trades and showcasing a project that we are doing,” said Cassidy.
“I think the students were excited to see and interested to see something that was very large in scale and see the various phases to try to put the pieces of the puzzle together in their mind.”
Despite the brisk winter weather on Jan. 13, Schottke said the feedback from the event was good. The students had the opportunity to ask questions during the tour, ranging from specific construction details to overall project development topics such as rental costs to live in an apartment unit.
“The lead teacher from the Academy for Design and Construction said afterward the kids had good questions and good conversation,” said Schottke. “Feedback from the employers onsite, the contractors, was also positive.
“It is always fun to tell your story. That is really how I prepped everybody onsite: Talk about the project, but also tell your construction story.”
During the hour-long tour, Stoner said the professionals spent time discussing how they became involved in the construction industry and conveyed to the students the various paths to a successful career in the trade.
“I was actually surprised with the level of interest the students showed,” said Stoner. “They were able to see that you can have a part in construction whether you start with an engineering master’s degree or if you don’t even complete four years of college: There is a place for all of that in construction.”
The Construction Workforce Development Alliance and Talent 2025 conducted a construction industry survey for the West Michigan region, which was administered by the W.E. Upjohn Institute in July 2014. The survey indicated area construction companies have had a hard time finding workers, with 68 percent stating they had to decline or delay work due to the shortage.
“I don’t think it is a secret that there is a shortage of skilled workers in the trades — period, and that certainly applies to our local area in the Grand Rapids market,” said Cassidy. “We all talked about our backgrounds in education and stressed the importance of it, but realized that path is not going to be the path for everyone.”
Mike Dykstra, president of Zeeland Lumber, indicated during the event the industry has a projected annual growth rate of 3.5 percent through 2030, compared with 0.7 percent for all other industries, highlighting the need for new workers.
Knowing there are a number of paths available to enter the construction industry and acknowledging not all students will go on to get an advanced education, Cassidy said there is a need to educate students on all of their options.
“We certainly wanted to open up our ideas and thoughts to the students who were there to understand that this is a field that has tremendous opportunity,” said Cassidy.
“There were people on my staff who did not have a formal college education. They had a high school education, but they grew up with experience in the trade and eventually worked up to a point where they can help manage and facilitate the daily operations of a complex.”
Schottke said with a number of job-training programs available, including skilled trades training and college degrees, it was important to share the different types of stories to spark interest in the students.
“You never know what is going to strike a student as interesting,” said Schottke. “At that age it is really just about showing them there is something exciting and interesting about having a job in construction. There is a cool factor to it: You get to be outside, and when it is done you get to drive by that building every single day and be proud of it.”
The ABC/WMC plans to facilitate career tours in the future with the Academy for Design and Construction as well as with Kent Intermediate School District as part of its own initiative and in collaboration with the Construction Workforce Development Alliance to encourage students to consider the construction employment market.
Area students also toured Progressive AE and a Rockford Construction job site last fall, according to Schottke.