Hess builds foundation for student success

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Thanks to enterprising individuals such as George Hess, high school for some 300 Colorado Springs students is a lot more fun.

That’s because the Vantage Homes CEO and newly elected chairman of the Home Builders Institute helped create the Careers in Construction program in 2015. Now students learn how to build a home while incorporating the four legs of construction — carpentry, plumbing, mechanical and electrical.

After observing student reactions to working with their hands, Hess knew exploring vocational education at high schools would be beneficial. The program also incorporates transitioning military (Fort Carson is in the process of opening a program at the post).

As chairman of HBI, Hess is not only seeing to the success of the program, but also its growth, as it’s drawing interest nationwide. Semi-retired from his CEO post, he’s able to ensure the program meets its potential. It’s now part of high school curriculum in school districts 2, 3, 11 and 49, and is taught by retired industry professionals.

A Mitchell High School graduate, Hess, 63, went to Colorado State University, where he earned a business degree. He has two sons, Mike and Chris, and is married to Barbie. He’s a partner in a southern Colorado ranch, the Ponderosa Valley Ranch, where he enjoys riding horses. He’s also  an avid race car driver and enjoys fly fishing and bird hunting.

How did Careers in Construction go from concept to reality?

We [Hess and his colleagues] started searching for a curriculum. The Homebuilders Institute had that curriculum. That’s where our initial contact was made. … We knew the first thing we probably needed was the curriculum because we don’t want to be educators. We felt the school districts … were the ones that could help facilitate this. That’s where I met John Courson, who was the president and CEO of HBI. We started working together on putting together curriculum to be used in high schools. … We were very fortunate there was a lot of receptiveness to the idea.

Why are you passionate about Careers in Construction?

I served on the board of directors of Career Building Academy, a noted, construction-based school. That school was mostly focused on at-risk kids. What we saw was that these young people — because they got to work with their hands building something — saw reason to go to school. We were seeing so many young people [in traditional settings] … going ‘Why am I here? What am I going to do with geometry? What am I going to do with algebra?’ … All of a sudden their MESS scores (Math, English, Science, Social Studies) became more important to them because they got to build something with their hands and utilize their math. … Our objective is to get the students, in some shape or form, to build a house. … It gives us an opportunity to maybe make things better. That’s the objective — how we can make things better for young people.

How do you relate to this program?

I started off framing houses. I would’ve loved a program like this in high school if I’d had the opportunity. … I was of the generation whose parents were in World War II, Depression kids. The GI Bill enabled my father, who was born and raised in Pueblo, to go to college. That generation was really the first generation to really want to see their kids go to college. I don’t regret going to college; it just wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea. When I graduated and realized this was the business I wanted to get into, we started building our own houses without any experience — we had a gentleman come teach us how to do it. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I have a passion for it. It’s a wonderful business and it’s a people business.

How is the program funded?

We’re working with a number of foundations on multiple-year plans to help fund and expand the military and high school programs. … [There’s also a program] called the Building Futures Fund. What we’ve done as an industry is volunteered to take $25 from every permit pulled and put it into the fund. (They also receive monetary and material donations from individuals and organizations.) That allows us to help support the schools. One of the biggest obstacles [is giving them the space and material they need]. The industry has really stepped up and supported it. … We spend between 20 to 30 grand a school.

What’s it like being the founder and CEO of Vantage Homes?

The trip has been a trip. We’ve had really bad years like the recessions … I’ve always looked at them as learning experiences. … Anytime I’ve had to let someone go, not from any fault of their own but because of the market, it’s been painful. That’s the worst part. … The positive is building the team and having great people. … A big positive for me right now is the transition we’re going through with the team. My son (Mike) is now involved with the company. … We’ve worked our tails off and that’s what it takes to survive.