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VOL. 41 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 18, 2017

College or construction? The answer is getting tougher

By Kathy Carlson

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MTSU student Cody Pratt, 22 is a project management field intern for the summer at a construction project at Memorial Boulevard and Broad Street in Murfreesboro. Here he looks at the plans for changes to be implemented on the bridge that will take traffic over Broad Street, easing a traffic bottleneck.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

From learning on the job to earning degrees in civil engineering, there are many roads into the construction industry and its array of specialties.

Students don’t have to go straight from high school into construction work and many new educational opportunities are being developed.

Middle Tennessee State University senior Cody Pratt will graduate in December with a major in commercial construction management. He grew up in Murfreesboro and in the industry, the son of a field superintendent with a construction company.

Pratt initially majored in accounting, but he was always interested in construction. A summer job in construction labor one previous summer led him to focus on construction, and for the past year he has been a project management field intern with Bell & Associates Construction, working on a bridge being built at one of the state’s busiest intersections – Memorial Boulevard and Broadway in Murfreesboro.

His goal is to be a project manager in transportation construction, roads and bridges.

“Out here I do daily job reports, I log and file deliveries, make orders for supplies and material, monitor job site safety” on a site where perhaps 25 to 30 people are working on an average day.

“It’s nice being able to participate in this project and have it 10 minutes or less from where I am in Murfreesboro.”

He says he’s seeing more young people going straight from high school into construction labor for reasons including the cost of going to college, lack of interest in college and questioning whether it’s worth the expense of going to college even if there’s enough money to do so.

He would encourage high school students thinking of going into construction work to go for it.

“If they want to do that (work outdoors on the site in construction), they should start as soon as they get out of school. If you’re young and smart you don’t have to go to college. You can work your way up.

“By the time you’re 30, you can become a job site foreman or an assistant superintendent.”

Tennessee Road Builders Association Kent Starwalt says wages in the construction industry are increasing. “You can make a very, very good living in the construction industry without a four-year degree.

“You can work from general labor to become an equipment operator,’’ he adds. “If you have good people skills you can become a foreman or superintendent. You can make close to six figures” after working your way up in the industry.

“Does everyone make that? No, but you can make a very good living and support a family.”

The highway construction industry competes with building construction industry for workers, and also competes with other non-construction employers seeking unskilled labor and skilled equipment operators, such as the warehouse and fulfillment industry, Starwalt points out.

Outdoor construction companies such as highway construction firms have to pay a premium to get workers willing to work outside in the elements, rather than indoors in a climate-controlled warehouse.

Ryan Dwyer, director of operations for Go Build Tennessee, which aims to build awareness of career possibilities in construction, says the average wage of a skilled tradesman is $40,000 a year. That can reach six figures in some special construction occupations, he says.

“An important message we communicate at Go Build is that there are honorable, viable, sustainable career paths in the skilled trades, and it’s not just the common misperception of being a fallback career choice or just seasonal work. With the proper training, there is an endless supply of career opportunities throughout the state and country.”

The state of Tennessee’s 2017 highway prevailing wage rates, issued in January, lists 25 different labor categories for road work, from unskilled laborers earning $13.64 an hour to the highest-paying job, painter/sandblaster, with a prevailing hourly wage of $27.43. The prevailing wage for skilled laborers is $15.89 an hour; it’s $21.27 for a crane operator and $18.23 for a carpenter/leadsperson, for example.

Tennessee’s colleges of applied technology currently offer certificate programs in welding and other skilled construction trades. Its community colleges offer associate’s degree programs in construction- and engineering-related fields along with the potential to transfer credits to a four-year college.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Tennessee Technological University, Tennessee State University and University of Memphis, for example, offer civil engineering programs. Middle Tennessee State University offers degrees in construction management, including concrete management.

“Road building and heavy civil structures is an important part of the curriculum within both construction and concrete management,” says Heather Brown, professor and director of MTSU’s School of Concrete and Construction Management. “We’ve even been approached by road paving equipment and supplier companies to offer additional coursework for their technicians to boost their road paving materials knowledge.”

MTSU has been developing a one-year certification in road construction that both its students and industry can take for college credit, she says.

Plans are to roll out the classes in 2018, and the program would have both asphalt and concrete components along with road repair options.

The program currently under consideration would include an internship and represent 15 hours of undergraduate credit.

The purpose of the program is to develop the next generation of technical leaders and specialists to support customers in the road construction and minerals technology businesses, a draft description states.

Amelie Sharp is a student in Nashville State Community College’s civil/construction engineering technology program.

“I actually have always enjoyed looking at how things are made. … I was always interested in construction,” she explains. “I started with a CAD (computer-assisted design) class one summer, then just decided to keep doing it.”

Another selling point for construction was financial. Sharp’s daughter graduated from college five years ago and is an estimator for a large interstate construction company.

Her daughter’s success and earnings potential prompted Sharp to study construction technology.

“I want to see what opportunities come up,” including in transportation construction, when she completes her associate’s degree.

Nashville State is “providing me with all the basic background I need to go into the field. … Construction is not by any imagination a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday (field). You need to be detail-oriented, able to multitask. It interests me.”