C.W. Matthews Construction company has more than a dozen interns, including Fiore Sturdivant, a senior who has won national awards and would like to continue in the business without attending college, on June 10, 2020. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Jenni Girtman
Photo: Jenni Girtman

Students thrive in construction, despite COVID-19’s impact on schools

While many of her classmates are looking for ways to social distance while still enjoying the summer break, Fiore Sturdivant is checking utility plans for major projects at C.W. Matthews, a Marietta-based, family-owned construction company.

A rising senior at Kennesaw Mountain High School, her proficiency in math and engineering made her a candidate for many career fields. But she took a construction class at school and became hooked.

“In a room of 25 boys, I was usually the only girl and that was a little intimidating,” she said. “I checked my schedule to make sure I was in the right class. I didn’t want to be rude and leave in the middle so I stayed and listened and liked everything I heard.”

For recent high school and college graduates, these are some of the worse times to be entering the job market. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are more than 3.2 million high school graduates in the country. The unemployment rate in Georgia is near 12%, a few points below the national average of 15%.

Despite those grim figures, the construction industry is hungry for young talent.

“The competition for these graduates is fierce,” said Jeremy Whitaker, a former construction teacher at Kennesaw Mountain High who is now the recruiting and development manager at C.W. Matthews. “I’ve had students who’ve made $45,000 their first year out of high school and have no college debt.”

Sturdivant is working with the design team on major projects such as bridges and road expansions. Her primary duty is checking for utility lines, railroad crossings and other obstructions.

“I hope to see more women and people of color in this industry,” she said. “It’s important work and I tell people that this is a great career for women.”

She’s among 18 high school interns and five working recent high school graduates at the firm.

Whitaker was so passionate about encouraging students who weren’t sure of their post-high school path to consider construction as an option for good wages, on-the-job training and a way to make an impact on their community that C.W. Matthews recruited him to spread the word on a corporate level.

“When most people think about construction, buildings come to mind,” he said. “What we do is called ‘horizontal’ construction. One of our biggest clients is the state Department of Transportation.”

Several notable projects are $1.3 billion 5th runway at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the record repair of Interstate 85 in spring of 2017. Working seven days a week, the $16.6 million project was finished a month before they completion deadline of May 21, allowing 400,000 motorists to resume access.

“We couldn’t have completed that project in such a timely fashion if we didn’t have a strong workforce,” said Whitaker. “We look for local talent and strive to promote from within. When we’re looking to fill a management position our first inclination isn’t to look on LinkedIn, we usually already have someone in mind who’s rising through the ranks.”

One of those employees is new-hire Sam Sparks, a recent graduate of Kennesaw Mountain High, and a former intern with the company.

“I always wanted to do something in construction,” said Sparks. “And this is a great job. I love what I do and look forward to coming to work every day.”

He went from cleaning up the asphalt yard as a summer intern to his current position in the asphalt delivery control room.

“I get an order for a certain type of asphalt mix and I make sure the truck right delivery,” he said.

It may look simple, but asphalt is a complex substance. Depending upon the type of road, the mixture can be fine as sand or coarse as gravel. And nothing is wasted. When it’s time to resurface a road, the asphalt is scraped off and recycled.

With 27 asphalt plants in Georgia, C.W. Matthews manufactures materials for other companies, too.

“This is a year-round operation,” said Whitaker. “There’s always construction going on somewhere.”

In June 2018, there were 263,000 job openings in the construction industry, according to estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Through 2026, BLS projects faster-than-average employment growth in the industry. What’s more, its median annual wage of $45,820 in 2017 surpassed the $37,690 median wage for all industries.

And although some occupations in the construction industry typically require a college degree, many others are open to those with just a high school diploma.

Lyndy Jones, president of JCI Contractors, a family-owned commercial builder based in Moultrie, said the company has grown relationships with local schools since it was founded in 1989.

“About 80% of our jobs are building K-12schools and we’ve found that the students are excited to be a part of history,” he said. “Our people drive past structures they built 20 years ago.”

Like just about every other contractor, Jones said he’s concerned about finding and keeping good workers.

“We participate in Career Day and sponsor a Skills USA team,” he said of the state and national competition for students in construction trades.

Payton Greer, a standout on the 2019 team is now an employee of the 30-year-old company. She graduated last year from Lee County High and is currently on a job site for the construction of a competition swimming pool.

“She works on cost estimates,” said Jones. “Her passion and enthusiasm makes her an excellent employee. She’s studying construction at Moultrie Technical College and works flexible hours here part time.”

For many young people, it’s the best of both words — learning on the job and getting a college education while making a decent wage.

The high demand and pay makes the field attractive, said Scott Shelar, president and CEO of the Construction Education Foundation of Georgia. The non-profit works with schools and businesses to prepare students for jobs in the construction industry. With the COVID-19 pandemic, these careers that typically require a lot of hands-on training, have had to rely on virtual classes and online testing.

Since schools were required to teach in cyberspace, CEFGA has worked with teachers across the state to create virtual training tools that allow teachers to continue to teach construction education to their students while in quarantine at home. At the beginning of this school year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported there were 311,000 vacancies in the construction industry and analysts predict those numbers will continue to increase with demand.

“We realize teachers are the front-line leaders in workforce development and right now we need to provide content and credentialing programs for them so their students can succeed in the workforce,” said Shelar.

These virtual learning platforms can lead to nationally recognized credentials for high school students that result in higher wages. The programs provide certifications such as the OSHA 10-hour safety training program. Students also have the opportunity to learn about careers in construction with digital demonstrations that virtually take students on walkthroughs of construction jobs and/or sites.

CEFGA is also helping educate students on career options and working to place students directly into jobs at leading construction companies. High school students interested in a career in construction can text “careerpath” to 31996 to receive a quick application. Someone from the CEFGA career placement team will follow up with the student for information on advanced training, apprenticeships, and even job placement.

Like the Cobb County schools, Gwinnett County Public Schools has partnered with construction companies to get students training well before graduation day.

Drew Fitzwater kept up his construction instruction during digital learning days this spring by working for his father’s company.

“I don’t really like to sit still and I’m a real hands-on person,” said the rising senior at Maxwell High School. “I don’t plan to go to college so distance learning worked out perfectly for me. I tell other kids that this can a great career for them too.”

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