An unusually rainy morning made for a soggy Tucson Rodeo Grounds. This allowed the thousands of local students attending the Southern Arizona Construction Career Days to see firsthand the ingenuity of a job in construction, as workers filled the puddles and ditches to keep the event running smoothly.
The sixth annual event, which took place Nov. 7 and 8 at the rodeo grounds, gathered dozens of construction companies to show local students the opportunities and benefits of a career in the construction field. But the event included more than a series of booths and pamphlets; students were able to operate construction equipment, ride in scissor lifts, try out power tools and even weld.
“We have a lot of great jobs in our industry, so it’s good to get a tool in their hands and get them excited,” said Jim Horn, director of mining sales at Border Construction Specialties.
At the Border Construction booth, students from throughout Pima County were able to practice drilling holes in wood and concrete with power and hammer drills.
“A lot of these kids have never held these kinds of tools before, and you can actually see their eyes light up when they use them,” Horn said. “Some will even shout ‘Look, I just drilled a hole!’”
The construction industry needs more local workers; Arizona is listed as one of the top 10 growing states for construction jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Industry analysts predict demand for as many as 200,000 new construction positions over the next decade, with 35,000 in Pima County.
During the event, the Associated General Contractors of America announced that construction employment in the Tucson metro hit its highest level in 11 years. Between September 2011 and September 2019, Tucson added 3,400 construction jobs. Nationwide, 309 out of 358 metro areas added construction jobs since 2011.
Since starting, Construction Career Days estimates they’ve hosted more than 700 exhibitors and 500 pieces of equipment. Just this year, they hosted more than 3,800 students from 60 different schools throughout Pima County. Those schools include Desert Christian High School, La Paloma Academy and Cross Middle School.
“There is a level of fulfillment going into the trades,” said Rocky Mitchell with Granite Construction. “You have a tangible product. There’s the hard work, the benefits, the opportunities, the grit. It’s like a big family.”
Skilled trade workers routinely top the list of most in-demand US jobs, and the BLS projects “faster-than-average employment growth” in the industry through 2026. BLS also reports construction’s median annual wage of $45,820 in 2017 surpassed the $37,690 median wage for all industries. In July 2018, there were 7.2 million US construction jobs, the highest level of construction jobs in a decade. While some of those jobs require a college degree, many can begin with only a high school diploma.
Many blame this shortage of skilled trade workers in the US on a cultural emphasis on attending four-year universities, rather than trade schools or directly entering the workforce. Some booths at Construction Career Days focused on changing this paradigm, such as the Pima JTED booth.
“We have the construction industry knocking on our doors and asking for graduates all the time,” said Greg D’Anna, director of public relations for Pima JTED. “Many of these students can get a $50,000 a year job only a few years after high school – high school!”
Pima JTED, or Joint Technical Education District, offers tuition-free career and technical education programs to local high school sophomores, juniors and seniors. They work with public, private, and charter schools to train students in trade skills. Local students can attend Pima JTED classes at all public high schools in Pima County, Santa Cruz Valley, Nogales, and Mammoth-San Manuel.
For Construction Career Days, Pima JTED especially focused on their industrial technologies, such as heavy equipment operations classes; heating, ventilation and air conditioning training; and precision manufacturing training.
“The students are making those industry connections because their instructors are part of the industry,” D’Anna said. “And it’s not one-or-the-other. They can still go to college. But they can pay for it with a job like this and not go into debt.”
Construction Career Days was divided into multiple sections based on trade: building construction, utilities, engineering, and civil and mining construction. Construction companies both local and international hosted booths, including Sunland Asphalt, Barker Contracting, RDO Equipment Co., Granite and Makita Tools.
Non-corporate booths were also in attendance: the Town of Marana, Pima JTED and the local union of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Professional masons, electricians, carpenters and other construction workers operated the booths, and were able to give the students firsthand accounts of the benefits and daily routines of their jobs. It was these same professional construction workers who helped the students operate tools and equipment.
Christian Goff of Secrist Middle School had never operated an excavator before, but was able to test his skills by moving the machine’s arm to drop a tennis ball into a bucket.
“It was pretty hard,” Goff said. “But more fun than I was expecting.”