On the blank, flat surface of a parking lot at the Peyton/Widefield Vocational Education Campus, more than 40 students from Widefield School District 3 are building a house.

The students have been developing construction skills in a 12,000-square-foot indoor space at the MiLL National Training Center at 4450 Foreign Trade Zone Blvd. (MiLL stands for Manufacturing Industry Learning Labs.) They’ve been learning carpentry, electrical and plumbing techniques in the MiLL’s lab environment.

Now they’ll see how it all comes together, from the ground up. The students will build a 1,200-square-foot modular home near the training center.

The Home Build project is managed by Careers in Construction Colorado, a program of the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs that is supported by Associated General Contractors-Colorado, the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department and a host of industry partners.

George Hess, founder and CEO of Vantage Homes Corporation and an HBA board member, said the program aims to have kids build a home at their school adjacent to their classrooms.

“The first two are starting this week,” he said.

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Careers in Construction

Careers in Construction was launched by the HBA in 2015 to connect young people with construction education.

Largely supported by the construction industry through the Building Futures Fund, Careers in Construction started in Harrison School District 2 with 15 students. Thirteen schools and almost 500 students currently participate, Hess said. Students from four schools will be building homes near their schools under the supervision of their instructors and building professionals.

Besides Widefield, those schools include James Irwin Charter Schools’ Power Technical Early College, where a home also will soon start to rise. Students at Mitchell and Coronado high schools in District 11 will be building homes starting in the fall.

Students from District 3’s Mesa Ridge and Widefield high schools started their project on March 7, when the first batch of materials was delivered to the MiLL.

Plans were provided by Clayton Homes, the largest manufacturer of modular homes in the country. Norbord Corp., Shaw Industries, GAF Corp., Dupont, Kohler, Boise Cascade and other suppliers and trade partners are providing initial materials, Hess said.

“It’s constructed according to the same codes that we construct a home,” Hess said. “The kids are learning in the classroom certain construction techniques — how to build a wall, install a circuit or put in plumbing — but there’s just something different about actually building it. When you have to do the whole thing, it’s a completely different learning experience.”

The home will be inspected by the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department.

“We’ve asked Regional Building, as they do the inspections, to educate the kids as to why they do the inspections, the importance of the involvement of the Regional Building Department in the construction industry, and to educate them about jobs that are available with the inspecting agencies,” Hess said. “They’re very much an integral part in what we do. We’re doing that with all our trades. While they’re showing the kids how to build those components that they specialize in, we want them also to talk about their career in the industry.”

The home is designed to be moved from the build site to a permanent foundation and will be sold upon completion. Proceeds will go back into the program.

Four-year pathway

District 3 had a strong building and construction trades program before the Great Recession hit in 2008, Superintendent Scott Campbell said. It included construction of more than 20 houses in partnership with local builders. Those homes, which are still occupied, were a source of community pride.

“We did one a year in the 1980s up until 2008,” Campbell said. “When the recession hit, it was one of the first things to go. We’ve always looked for a way to bring it back.”

The district took the first step in 2016, when it partnered with Peyton School District and Dean Mattson, founder of an Oregon cabinet-making company, to create the MiLL Academy in a former potato chip factory, where students were learning state-of-the-art woodworking.

“It just makes them a lot more employable right off the get-go.”
— Scott Campbell

The next year, D-3’s leaders started meeting with Hess and the HBA and got involved in Careers in Construction, which was up and running in other school districts.

“Their vision matched very well with our vision,” Campbell said. “They have been very involved with the teachers and kids. The idea of starting to build a house and using kids to do that, we were on board right away in those discussions.”

More than 70 students now are involved in District 3’s construction programs.

“Our numbers tripled in one year,” Campbell said.

The district uses the nationally recognized Home Builders Institute curriculum, which allows students to earn pre-apprenticeship certificates in specific content areas, said Nikki Carter, D-3’s director of career and technical education.

Students follow a four-year construction pathway that begins with safety, measurements and tool use in year one; plumbing and electrical in year two; HVAC in year three; and painting and finishing, weatherization and masonry in year four.

The district now is two years into the program. HVAC will be taught for the first time in the 2019-20 school year, Carter said.

Workplace skills

“We’re not just giving them some entry-level skills,” Carter said. “We’re giving them advanced skills to continue after our pathway.”

While they are building their technical abilities, students also will be learning workplace and personal skills such as decision-making, teamwork, planning, leadership, work ethic, professionalism and responsibility.

“One of the things that’s very frustrating for some of these businesses is, ‘How do I know I’m going to get a kid who’s going to show up on time, show up every day, and do those things?’ That’s part of our curriculum. We stress that daily,” Campbell said.

The district also is trying to encourage kids to go into construction by breaking perceptions of what the industry is like — “that it’s only for certain genders or for certain types of individuals or they’re not going to make enough money,” Carter said. “By students being in this program and having those partnerships with so many people in the community, we are definitely making some strides to get over that.”

When students complete the pathway, they can present their pre-apprentice certifications to potential employers.

“It just makes them a lot more employable right off the get-go,” Campbell said.

Several students from Widefield and Mesa Ridge already are employed, Carter said.

Wendy Clark, a workforce liaison from the HBA, meets with all the construction students monthly to talk about job openings, prepare them for interviews and help with resumés.

“Careers in Construction isn’t an instant answer to what we need in the way of skilled labor,” Hess said. “We’re starting this year to place kids in jobs, but it’s a long-term solution to fill our job requirements. The most important piece is that what we have here is a great example of a collaboration between the public and private sectors, the public sector being the school districts and the private sector the construction industry.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done this,” Hess said. “It’s going to be a learning experience for us also, and we’re very excited about it.”