William L. Dickinson High School in Jersey City, with 2,700 students, is a lively place at 11:30 on a Monday morning. Lockers slamming, bells ringing, voices bellowing over the loud speaker: "You have 10 seconds to get to class!" In the auditorium, some 30 students, mostly juniors and seniors, chow down on pizza, compliments of the school principal, Robert Donato. They have gathered around for the free pizza—and to find out more about a career in construction.
"When you choose a career, what's important to you?" asks Ralph Morano, a consultant with the Building Contractors Association of New Jersey.
Answers range from opportunity and money to job security. Angelos Tofiles, a junior, raises his hand and says, "education."
"My parents can't afford to send me to college," explains Tofiles. "I want to choose a career that also gives me an education." Tofiles, who is good at history, had been planning to head into the military until March of his sophomore year when his school counselor suggested he check out a Construction Career Day at one of the local colleges. Tofiles' uncle runs a construction business, where Angelos worked for one summer, helping to reconstruct the room of a church. "I've learned there's a lot more freedom in a construction career," says Tofiles. "They pay for your education, you get full benefits and the money is great. I'm seriously thinking about working with my hands for my career."
Not a bad decision, says Elinor Shemeld, director of career development for the Associated General Contractors of America in Alexandria, Virginia, who sees a "steady increase" in construction trade job opportunities in the coming years in a profession that already has 100,000 job openings. For one, families need roofs over their heads. Workers would need to build 1 million houses every year to keep up with the residential demands in the first 10 years of this century, says Shemeld. What's more, states are always building new roads, bridges and especially schools. "The average age of school buildings around the country is 34 years," Shemeld explains. School construction alone translates into billions of dollars worth of work. Jersey City, for example, has $966 million to build and refurbish its city schools, most of which will be done by unionized construction workers in Jersey City.
But jobs in construction aren't all about fitting pipes, swinging hammers and drilling roads. "The construction trades need all kinds of careers," says Shemeld. "Accountants, trainers, lawyers, designers. Half of our professions require advanced degrees." A four-year college degree in construction management leads to careers as safety and health directors, design engineers and project managers who handle all aspects of a particular job, to name a few. "We definitely need people to work in the trades," notes Shemeld. "But if you're more interested in science, construction also needs designers to invent good building materials, tools, computer programs and heavy equipment." Chemists recently invented a new rubber cement (not the kind you used in art class) to help maintain highways.
Learning a skill or trade can also be a stepping stone to another career, Shemeld says. Whatever your decision, though, she suggests you build a career with a strong educational foundation. "Education is always the key to succeeding," says Shemeld. "Learn your math, science, writing and communications in high school. With that, so many opportunities are available to you."
Dickinson High School's Angelos Tofiles, who hits the basketball court with his friends each day to shoot hoops and talk about their future, couldn't agree more. "I know when I graduate that I'll be ready for hands-on experience. I have options."