Career road less traveled

Work: A construction trades group tries to show high schoolers that the route to a livelihood can detour around college.

April 27, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Brian Wojcik isn't really sure what's in his future, but he's sure what's not - college. "I know enough," said the 17-year-old senior at Loch Raven High School.

The Maryland Construction Trades Association knows precisely what it wants in its future, however - people like Brian Wojcik.

The association, a newly formed group of unions and employers in the construction business, held its first job fair yesterday, at a union training facility in White Marsh. It invited students from 78 area high schools and offered to pay for their bus fare and buy them lunch. More than 700 showed up.

Then the association tried to awe them with heavy machinery and wow them with craftsmanship and otherwise begin the delicate, sometimes unpopular task of convincing teen-agers that college isn't the only path in life.

Apprentice programs for carpenters, cement masons, ironworkers, equipment operators and general laborers have openings right now, association members told the students. Some apprentices earn $10 or more an hour to start, with promises of a $35,000- to $50,000-a-year career when they graduate to journeymen in three to five years. Dexterity, aptitude and a clean drug test are required. College is not.

"We've had a hard time for years going into schools - particularly with guidance counselors - where everyone is accustomed to steering students toward four-year colleges and away from everything else," said Stephen T. Kimball, senior vice president of Kimball Construction and president of the trade association.

"We're not naive. We know [the non-collegiate route is] not for everyone," Kimball said. "But we'd like to create some new awareness about this kind of work, to let people see that it's OK and that it can be a good alternative."

Product of necessity

The career fair was born partly from necessity. With construction spending expected to rise during the next 20 years, and with computers drawing more workers indoors, the construction industry is anticipating a manpower shortage. Most construction companies are desperate for trained workers, particularly those who show up regularly and on time.

The association is financed by area employers as part of their contracts with the unions, and it hopes that 10 percent of the students who attended yesterday will pursue apprenticeships.

That's an ambitious goal, members admit, especially if it means convincing parents to encourage teen-agers to follow an industry that rarely rates in the dream-job category. But the employment outlook and pay scale are competitive, they say. Besides, the call of the cubicle doesn't beckon so loudly for some.

"We know this industry has a tough image," said Barry Klingenberg, the director of field operations for the Whiting-Turner Contracting Company. "People think, `Oh, that's just a bunch of dirtballs working construction.' But look at the work these guys are doing, look at what they get paid. It doesn't live up to that bad image. And it's definitely a better alternative than flipping burgers."

Hope of a job

Khalil Walker and Michael Knight haven't mapped out their lives, either. Walker gives college some thought, Knight doesn't. Neither expects answers by the time they graduate from high school this summer. Both are 17.

But as they sat under a tent in the food court yesterday, sizing up their futures for what seemed like the first time, both said they were at least happy to see that two guys fresh out of high school have hope of landing a job, and even a career perhaps.

Walker, a senior at Randallstown High, liked carpentry. "Seems better than college to me," he said.

Knight preferred the operating engineers, who drive backhoes, cranes and other heavy machinery.

"You push a button and the machine does all the stuff - I like that," said Knight, a senior at Milford Mill Academy. "Maybe it's not that easy, I don't know. But it sounds pretty good."

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