Businessmen see gap in trade instruction, pay to close it

Jay Cunningham says he advertises job openings for his plumbing company in five states and has hired people from as far away as Alaska.

Paul Letalien, who owns a high-end building repair firm, says he could double his business if he could just find more qualified workers.

The economy has thrashed the construction industry in Georgia, resulting in widespread unemployment, yet these two Cobb County businessmen can't seem to find job seekers with the right mix of technical skills and genial attitude.

Their struggle inspired them to do something unheard of in Cobb: They each contributed about $60,000 to a local high school so students could learn about careers in construction and plumbing.

"Everybody's taught them how to add and subtract, but no one's taught them how to work with their hands," said Letalien, who owns Archer Restoration Services. "I could grow my business, but I can't find young people who know construction or anything about a work ethic."

The school system used the money to hire two former tradesmen to teach construction courses this fall.

Cobb has hired part-time instructors using money raised by school foundations in the past but never full-time employees certified to grade students, said Judith Jones, the school system's curriculum chief.

This effort to prepare students for work with their hands comes as studies show job security and pay rising with education level -- and steep drops in construction employment during the recession.

From 2008 to 2010, construction-related employment fell about 25 percent in Cobb and about 20 percent in metro Atlanta, according to the Technical College System of Georgia. Employment rebounded this year but isn't expected to surpass 2008 levels anytime soon.

Yet these figures are generalizations: They lump high-skilled positions -- stonemasons, steelworkers, plumbers and pipefitters -- with jobs like roofer helper or insulation worker, which require less training.

Donald Sabbarese, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University, pointed to a recent survey by the global recruitment firm ManpowerGroup that said U.S. companies placed skilled tradesmen atop the the list of hardest-to-find employees. He said that suggests that for certain niches demand for labor is outstripping supply.

"Even in a market with all these unemployed people there's this mismatch," Sabbarese said.

The two teachers were hired mostly to work at North Cobb High School, Cunningham's alma mater. One of them also teaches a couple of courses at nearby Barber Middle School.

The idea sprang from a chance conversation at a North Cobb football game last year. Cunningham bumped into principal Phillip Page and said he'd like to do something for the school. Page told him about students who came to him saying they had no plans for going to a four-year college. The school once had a vocational construction program, but, as at many schools, it had withered away with the increased emphasis on college prep.

Cunningham talked one of his employees at Superior Plumbing into getting a teaching certificate, and he loaned the worker to North Cobb last spring for a pilot program that drew about 30 students. The man returned to his job with Cunningham last summer, but by then Cunningham's vision had grown. He nudged Letalien into helping with the cause. This fall, the construction program grew to about 200 students, and Cunningham has his eye on starting one more at another high school.

Most in the courses are freshmen. On a recent afternoon, teacher Kevin Squiers had them doing presentations about tools.

Deandre Dotstry, 15, used drawings to demonstrate how to use a level and a plumb bob. The freshman said he hopes he'll learn practical skills.

"I really want to be a football player," he said, "but if that doesn't work out, I'll go into the construction industry."

It's unclear how long Cunningham and Letalien will sustain their funding. Jones, the school system official, said Cobb may eventually fund the two positions at North Cobb with system dollars. This effort plays into a larger trend.

Cobb Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has said he'd like to start a career and technical academy. Such schools have been opening across Georgia since the late 1990s, the pace quickening in the past half decade, said Mike Light, a spokesman for the Technical College System of Georgia. There are 21 so far, according to the state Department of Education.

The academies are aimed at students who want to quickly get through a technical college rather than a four-year college and move into the workforce, Light said. “Often,” he said, “they’re out there making fifty, sixty thousand dollars while the kids they were sitting next to in high school are trying to figure out what their major is.”