Building a better image for future construction industry

While the competitors in the 2013 SkillsUSA Mississippi State Championships were showcasing their construction craftsmanship, construction and education leaders were doing their best to shine an even bigger light on career opportunities in the building community.

Officials were all smiles last week at the Mississippi Trade Mart in Jackson as high school and community college students and apprentices competed in the Olympics-like construction trade skills competition. The parking lot was full, and the Trade Mart floor was crowded during the two-day event held Feb. 26-27.

╥A legislator toured the competition and was just amazed, said Perry Nations, vice president of the Mississippi Construction Education Foundation (MCEF), which put on the program along with the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) and industry partners. “He left, and came back with another legislator. He wanted his peer to see the competition firsthand. That is exactly what we were hoping for.”╙

While MCEF has offered the skills competition each year since its inception in 1996, this year marked the first time the event included high school and community college students as well as apprentices. Thus, it offered a unique view of the progression of construction skills training available in the state.

That also gave MCEF, MDE and partners a chance to change some negative perceptions among those outside the building community.

╥”Unfortunately, there is a misconception that construction offers only low-paying, low-skill jobs,” said Mike Barkett, MCEF president. “The fact that the Department of Education is with us is huge. Now, we just have to keep telling our story that construction offers a wealth of high-paying, high-skill jobs. We offer a wide range of career opportunities, and it’s as much about training the brain as it is the hands.”╙

Barkett also touted the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER). The MCEF curriculum, which is now taught in 106 of the 113 career tech centers in Mississippi, is based on NCCER’s program. NCCER’s certification is accepted across state lines and in foreign countries, meaning Mississippi students and/or apprentices earning craft skill certification here hold the credentials to work practically anywhere.

In addition to offering tours of the competition to raise awareness, the show also provided a full slate of workshops aimed at educating school counselors and others in areas such as construction career planning and opportunities, what hiring managers want to see in job candidates and keeping students enrolled in construction-related training programs. The workshop drew approximately 130 participants.

The workshops also talked about the role and mission of the MCEF. Leaders are quick to point out that MCEF has never used any taxpayer money. Funding for the foundation comes from a fee in contractor licensing, a move for which the industry itself lobbied the Legislator and other “hook-and-crook” sources, said Nations. Nine different construction-focused organizations support MCEF and its efforts.

╥We have not asked the Legislator for one penny ╤ ever,╙Nations said. Even people in the construction industry sometimes don’t know that we are essentially a self-funded, grassroots effort. It’s just another thing that makes the MCEF and what we do here special.╙

The construction industry has been in an attack mode for years, trying to break down negative perception. The community is watching the age of managers and skilled craftsmen climb while the pool of young talent coming in to replace them shrinks.

While MCEF looks to change that, it also hopes to get out a little positive news about itself and its mission. Leaders hope the competition was a good first step in that direction.

Barkett said flatly, “We’re the best kept secret in the state. Maybe that ought to be our new slogan.”

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