As construction continues to accelerate in Polk County, builders look for employees who can show up for work on time, ready to tackle that day’s project. They’re getting help from the Polk County School District.

This year, the district opened four new construction academies, which are modeled after the first one at Bartow High School. The new academies are located at Fort Meade, Lake Region, Ridge Community and Tenoroc high schools. The fact that an average 165 teens attend each of the first-year programs shows students are interested in the construction field.

Gary Boyer, president of Boyer Building Corp. and chairman of the School District’s advisory board for the Polk County Construction Academies, said the board has been holding meetings at the schools to develop school-level advisory boards, which consist of business and community representatives.

“Among the tasks that we have performed are fund-raising, developing relationships with suppliers to provide the school with tools and materials, and developing projects that the students can build and sell to the community at large,” Boyer said. “It is our mission to help these kids not only build skill sets, but get a sense of the business end of building.”

The academies are focusing on the basics of safety, tool usage and soft skills, such as showing up on time for work. “As the programs grow, they will begin to delve more into specific areas that are needed by construction firms,” said district spokesman Kyle Kennedy.

Rewarding Careers Await Students

Through the first two months of this year, builders pulled 497 permits in Polk County for single-family houses, an increase of 50 percent over the 331 permits pulled in the same two-month span last year, according to Chandra Frederick, director of the county’s building division.

“We applaud and support the School District’s efforts to introduce students to the construction industry,” she said. “Exposure in high school could lead to a very rewarding career in the industry.”

Boyer said he thinks creating a spark within students will give some teens the sense of purpose they need.

“By developing hard and soft skills, we are hoping to instill in the students a sense of commitment and responsibility at an earlier age,” he said. “With graduating high school seniors having a better understanding of tools, how to use them safely, why it is important to show up on time, how to wear the proper clothing — they will become more valuable to the construction market. Their development period will be shorter and they can be productive more quickly.”

Local Companies Benefit

Kennedy said the academies will benefit local construction companies by providing them a pipeline of new employees and students by opening doors into those construction companies that support the academies.

“Our firm has been an advocate for construction skills training in Polk County for many years, and there has been a noticeable decline over the past 10 to 15 years in the number of people in our labor force with the skills needed to fill the jobs that are available,” said Jason Rodda, CEO and president of Rodda Construction Inc.

“It is wonderful to see the commitment of the Polk County public schools in advancing these construction academies, and even more exciting to see the success they are having in attracting students to be interested in the programs. These efforts today will create a more diverse and talented workforce that will help make our county even more successful in the decades ahead.”

In addition to their business partners, Paul Webb, Doug Harwell and Tamara Fields — resource specialists with the School District’s Career and Technical Education department — are working with the programs.

Webb said it’s hard to measure success yet because 80 percent of the programs are in their first year. But Bartow High School’s success in its curriculum and growth — and the fact that students graduate with construction industry certifications — proves the academies can produce at a high level. Students who graduate enter a burgeoning field where the pay is often higher than the average wage.

“If our example of Bartow’s program is matched, then we will have students who enter the workforce ready to become strong employees, or go on to college and come out with degrees ranging from Construction Management to Engineering,” Webb said.

Students Learn More Than Construction

Boyer said once he figured out he wanted to go into Construction Management, he applied himself “fully to learning and growing.” Before that point, students explore many options.

“Reaching them at an earlier age and developing practical skills gives them confidence and direction to develop earlier,” he said. He hopes they graduate understanding “safety, situational awareness and that their product is not the only product that goes into constructing a building.”

But he also wants them to know things they can learn only by doing.

“They should know how to read a tape measure, communicate clearly, dress appropriately. Learn how to measure twice and cut once. Perform minor estimates, calculate basic materials and how to economize. Why cleaning up your workstation is important.”

And, not an afterthought, he says they should be budding artists. “Developing the ability to sketch in order to communicate a thought is invaluable.”