Students of the trade

Determining a career path can be a difficult decision to make, and sometimes the best way to test a particular career’s waters is to dive right in. High school students in Chicago’s northwest suburban District 211 Building Construction program have been building single-family homes for more than 30 years — a practice that has helped hundreds of students find direction in life, and a career.

The building construction program’s mission is to provide students with marketable skills and an introduction to the construction field, says Otis Price, director of career development, District 211. “It has been a great opportunity for students to get exposure not only working with contractors, but hands-on experience as well,” Price adds.

A goal of the program is for students to develop a broad knowledge and understanding of general contracting and the practical skills needed to build a home. Students are involved at every stage of the home building process, setting and removing forms, framing walls, pulling wires, installing windows and much more.

Building skills

Despite being a part of the program for many years, Price remains surprised at how quickly and successfully students pick up on each skill. “Besides the hands-on experience, they learn what it means to deal with contractors, what’s involved, to see what those contractors do. They also learn how to read a blueprint. From ground to ceiling they’re digging for the foundation and locking the front door they installed when it’s all done,” Price says.

Teaching the class for Palatine High School — one of District 211’s five high schools — is Bill Fraser, Building Construction teacher, Schaumburg High School. As each student learns skills and observes the construction process, Fraser steps in occasionally to guide certain students to what suits them, and sometimes away from what doesn’t. “Yes, they learn what they don’t want to do, which is good. I’d say roughly 70 percent of the students go into the trades after graduation. Many of them want to be architects and engineers,” Fraser says.

Not everything needed for a career in construction is learned in the field. Hands-on skills learned in the building construction program are supplemented with math, drafting and other core knowledge. “The students get out on the site and see why certain framing elements have angles, or how infrastructure is applied in the real world, and get a chance to see how book learning comes to fruition,” Price says.

As a learning tool, there’s no replacement for hands-on experience. Still, the homes students build must adhere to village and county codes, which is why electricians and plumbers, for example, are called in for some of the work. Subcontractors also help speed up the construction process, so a home can be completed before the school year is done. Recently, the program transitioned to a two-year commitment during which students assist subcontractors with pulling wires, bending pipe, hanging drywall, etc. “The students are learning a lot more this way,” Fraser adds.

This helps avoid those interested in design from becoming “desk architects” as Fraser calls architects “ … who have never banged a nail in their lives. If students learn practical skills of carpentry, and the practical aspect of how framing materials go together, they will be better designers who will know how to work within a budget.”

As part of the two-year model, students also gain commercial construction experience, working on the district’s many facilities at its five campuses.

Funding the future

Every home District 211 students have built has been sold. Profits from sales are applied to purchasing new land for future projects, and materials to build new homes. It’s a self-sustaining program with no end in sight. The program has been running for so long, many subcontractors used on its projects are owned or operated by its former students, Price notes. “They want to remain involved in it, which is great,” he says.

“In spite of what home builders might hear, our kids are ready to take the next step. In our area, so many times education is slammed, but I have to say we’re doing a good job preparing kids for the construction world. We’re just doing it in a different way than Mom and Dad used to do it. Experiential learning tends to help students retain more and hold skills more. It’s a big part of learning. This means they’re going to fail sometimes, but we all have to experience that to know how to succeed. When walls fall down they have to find out why, and then rebuild it,” he says.

Fraser is confident the program is developing a promising future for today’s home builders. “The students are pretty dedicated, and home builders will have an excited work force coming their way in a few years. Hopefully they’ll have jobs out there for them. They’re fired up.”