- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2000

From Legos to logarithms, the czars of the construction trade are trying to inspire grade-schoolers with dreams of joining the field.

Every year, nearly 225,000 construction workers retire. Employers have been consistently unable to replace even 20 percent of that number.

Foreseeing problems again in an industry that could be short 1 million workers by 2005, one construction company is looking for future recruits among America's 10-year-olds. However, there is a perception problem.

"The trouble is that a job as a construction worker makes people think of Roseanne Barr's husband," said Elinor Shemeld, spokeswoman for the Alexandria, Va.-based Associated General Contractors of America, the construction industry's largest trade association.

Since 1998, the contractor's group has distributed 600 videos to educators across the nation to dispel common stereotypes about the 6-million-worker construction industry. It has also distributed more than 7,000 "Build Up!" tool kits to elementary schoolchildren in nearly every state.

Included in the kits are building exercises using tape, pieces of cardboard and toilet paper. The object is to construct a platform that can withstand the weight of several books. They also build miniature bridges and model skyscrapers.

The purpose of this educational campaign "is to change the image of the construction industry," says Heather Acord of the industry group. "A lot of people think of blue-collar, steel-toed boots, but a subcontractor may use a Palm Pilot to talk to his subcontractors. Kids don't understand the technology involved."

Although computers and high-tech equipment are replacing much of the backbreaking and laborious tasks previously performed by construction workers, much of what needs to be done is still muscle work. Although industry salaries range from $9 an hour (for an apprentice) to $40-$50 hourly wages for specialists, the occupation is also known for working in extreme weather and dangerous conditions.

Workers are becoming impossible to find, even as demand for construction jobs has increased in the past year, said Chris Bradford, vice president of Rockville, Md.-based Carlson Construction Co.

"If we don't have enough manpower, we won't take on a new job, so some construction jobs just aren't being done," he said. He said the demand for laborers is just as grave as the need for educated, young professionals.

Thus, the industry group is trying to change public perceptions of the occupation, distributing its kits to 1 million fifth-graders and talking up its tech-oriented possibilities.

"Global-positioning satellites, laser-leveling systems, computerized equipment and Web-site communications are becoming commonplace in the industry," says Stephen Sandherr, Carlson executive vice-president and CEO.

The group also provides manuals for teachers and parents, describing the changing face of the industry and validating the construction profession as a first-choice career for ambitious young adults.

"We do too much to encourage everybody to get their doctorate," said one local teacher who has used the "Build Up!" tool kit. "For some kids, a blue-collar job would be the best profession for them."

The kits, she added, "could only have had a positive effect on their perceptions of the construction trade."

Last week, the trade association kicked off a middle-school program, "On Site!" that shows students how to construct structural supports out of cardboard tubes; how to differentiate among various kinds of bridges, identify pieces of construction equipment and understand titles such as bricklayer, project manager, electrician, engineer and ironworker.

A high school program will be started sometime next year.

Despite the increase in public relations, the heart of the profession involves men (and sometimes women) going out in the field and working on a construction site with their bare hands and small electrical tools. Two-thirds of the 150 employees of the Carlson Construction Co. are computer-literate, Mr. Bradford said.

"All [the new technologies] certainly haven't helped me out too much," says John Grimes, a construction worker installing pipelines on upper New York Avenue NE.

Computer-based operations help to digitally create graphic designs of buildings, he says, but these computers help little when it comes to physically working on the site.

Other construction workers are disillusioned by the labor-intensive chores, but seem to have few other career opportunities.

"I'd like to leave the industry, but I don't know where else I'd go," says construction worker Tom Blakeslee. "I'm waiting to win the lottery or something."

Both he and Mr. Grimes are employed by the Cianbro Corp. in Baltimore.

With calloused hands and sun-wrinkled skin, these men assume they will dig ditches for much of the rest of their lives, or at least until equipment is available to perform the more difficult tasks they must do.

"There will always be bigger cranes and more equipment to do some of the work," said Martin Byrne, editor of the Ironworker, a magazine distributed to members of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers.

"But only certain things can be done with machines and the rest has to be done with construction workers," he says. "The construction worker's job just can't be replaced.

"With a booming population, there will be more schools, more offices, more stores, more new highways and more bridges to make in the future. It never ends."

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