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After Hurricane, Texas School Tries To Meet Demand For Construction Workers

Oct 10, 2017
Originally published on October 12, 2017 2:11 pm

More than a month after Hurricane Harvey and historic flooding ravaged south Texas, a new construction training center is opening in Houston — and the timing couldn't be better.

"It was just sort of a matter of weird circumstances," says Linda Head, associate vice chancellor of workforce education at Lone Star College. The public community college system is set to formally open its long-planned Construction and Skilled Trades Technology Center on Oct. 30.

Located near Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the center was originally intended to train more workers for industrial construction projects in the Houston area.

Harvey's destruction and the emerging recovery efforts — estimated by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to cost more than $150 billion — have expanded the need for more workers to rebuild homes and commercial properties, too.

"We had not offered things like drywall taping and floating, roofing, flooring. But we have to do it," says Head, who adds that Lone Star College was already adapting its curriculum for residential projects before the storm hit.

About 800 students are enrolled in the construction trades program. Besides earning an associate's degree, students can enroll in certificate programs to get a jump start on jobs in pipefitting, welding, or heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).

Finding a job after graduation here is not a problem, says Randy Williams, a former Lone Star College student who now teaches in the HVAC department. In fact, companies have tried to hire his students before they finished their training.

"We're actually slapping the hands of our employers," he says. "We try to let them know that these students have to graduate first before they can get them into their employment."

Nationwide, 70 percent of contractors say they're struggling to find qualified construction workers, according to a recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America. Texas has been facing similar hiring challenges, which could drag out the time it takes to rebuild after Harvey.

But those challenges are also an opportunity for Lone Star College and its students, like 23-year-old Eric Arjon.

The floodwaters after Harvey swamped his pickup truck and mobile home. After the storm passed, he constantly checked for updates on when his classes to become an HVAC technician would finally begin.

"I want to be able to help the people that were affected," says Arjon, who started attending classes a month ago and is set to finish his program next year. "I want to be a blessing to people."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Texas is going to need a lot of money to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. The governor estimates close to $150 billion. But the state also needs people to do the work of rebuilding. They need more construction workers. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on how a new construction trade school in Houston is trying to keep up with the demand.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: More than a month after Harvey, classes are back in session at Lone Star College.

RANDY WILLIAMS: Got that going - two minutes, two minutes, two minutes.

WANG: Randy Williams is an instructor here leading a lesson on wiring a circuit board at the college's new Construction and Skilled Trades Technology Center.

WILLIAMS: And pretty much what I do is I teach HVAC and refrigeration to a lot of the students here at Lone Star College.

WANG: There are about 800 students enrolled in the construction trades program at this community college. Now, Williams says finding a job for them is not a problem.

WILLIAMS: Companies are always trying to hire our students prior to them finishing their actual course.

WANG: They're that in demand.

WILLIAMS: Yes, very in demand.

WANG: In fact, nationwide, 70 percent of contractors say they're struggling to find qualified construction workers, according to a recent survey by the Associated General Contractors of America. That could drag out the time it takes to rebuild Texas after Harvey. But that's also an opportunity for Lone Star College and its students. Before the storm hit, school administrator Linda Head says it was already adapting its curriculum to focus not just on industrial construction but also residential projects.

LINDA HEAD: We had not offered things like drywall and taping and floating, roofing, flooring, but we have to do it.

WANG: Students here can enroll in certificate programs to get a jump start on a job in pipe fitting, welding or heating ventilation and air conditioning. Texas will be in more desperate need for these skilled workers in the coming months, and Head says these students are tough.

HEAD: They're working. They're single parents. They have children. They have homes. And a lot of our students have been impacted by Harvey, and yet, they're here.

ERIC ARJON: The day that school started, I came in. I got all the stuff that I needed. I got my uniform. I got my books and stuff, and I was ready.

WANG: For 23-year-old Eric Arjon (ph) the floodwaters after Harvey swamped his pickup truck and mobile home. Still, after the storm passed, he constantly checked for updates on when his classes to become an HVAC technician would finally start.

ARJON: I want to be able to help the people that were affected. You know, I want to be a blessing to people, you know, to be able to help them out.

WANG: Some of the teachers here at Lone Star College helped out in flooded neighborhoods when the campus was turned into an emergency shelter, including Mike Dibiasio.

MIKE DIBIASIO: Cut sheet rock, checked all the electrical, everything needed so they could get back in their home. And I did that for 7 days straight. And I'm so glad to get back here to school for vacation (laughter).

WANG: Now, Dibiasio's back in front of a whiteboard teaching aspiring electricians so they can do the same kind of work soon. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, Houston.

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