Cathy Riggans is not a bricklayer, an electrician nor a general contractor. She is neither shop steward for the local pipefitter’s union nor foreman on a construction site. As of this writing, in fact, it is unknown if she has ever swung a hammer for a paycheck in her life.
So, it might seem unlikely that someone such as Riggan, an administrator in the Vilonia School District, would be the tip of the spear to create an educational program to backfill the shortage of workers in these very industries. Yet that is precisely what the eight-year assistant superintendent of Vilonia Schools orchestrated with Vilonia Pathways Academy, a new charter school that provides a holistic approach to preparing K-12 students for skilled careers after high school.
“Several years ago, the Arkansas Contractors Licensing Board at UA Little Rock completed a survey concerning the industry’s needs,” she said. “The findings were that unless there was a systematic approach to introducing students to the industry, then there would be a severe shortage. That’s proven to be true.
“We need workers; for every four who are retiring there is only one entering the industry, research states. And we feel like we can produce those workers.”
Riggans began the effort for what would roll out this school year as Vilonia Pathways Academy about four years ago. Taking note of state and national trends, she formed a relationship with Nabholz Construction and Kinco Constructors to help develop a means for producing more workforce-ready graduates.
It wasn’t an original concept nor a new problem, but the discussions led to an epiphany for Riggans that turned the entire venture on its head.
“At some point, I realized I was thinking more in a traditional mindset of a shop model, and it was not a shop model that we needed,” she said. “When you think about construction, a lot of people think it’s just shovel and pick, but the industry is high-tech these days. There’s so much that students are not aware of, and they needed exposure to the construction industry.”
Riggans changed course and began to think more comprehensively about the challenge of skilled education. Shop class had been around for generations, but it fell short of the kind of immersive educational experience she was after. With extensive input from her industry partners, soon joined by expertise from UA Little Rock, she and her colleagues crafted a curriculum unlike anything the school system had tried to that point.
“We really reversed the cycle,” she said. “A lot of times in education, we look at the standards when what we should do is look at the industry and ask them, ‘What you need?’ Some of my colleagues and I spent lots of time with those industry partners just listening and saying, ‘Tell us what skills are missing. What types of things do we need to offer?’ Then we went back to the teachers and started to develop that curriculum.”
Vilonia Pathways Academy boasts an interdisciplinary approach that combines education in core subject matter augmented with field trip experiences and age-appropriate training from industry partners, some of it right on the jobsite. This exposes students to various roles within the construction industry, the skills needed to be successful in those jobs and connects the dots between the classroom and the job market.
“Our students spend a lot of time in the field experiencing things firsthand,” she said. “Nabholz Construction went to Conway Regional for field experience there, and they were exposed to actual people working in the industry, learning about that. They’ve been to Kinco Constructors, working with them as they’re building a big project out at UAMS. They talked to the students about how BIM [building information modeling] is being used in the construction industry. We have some students who have developed interest in that program as a result.”
Even core classes are cast in the mold of applicability in technical careers, Riggans said, reinforced by companies in the field.
“For instance, 12th grade math is built around technical math,” she said. “The first unit was around budgeting and personal finance. What’s a 401K? How do you select your withholdings on your check? Am I going to work for salary or hourly? Then, we took our students to Nabholz Construction, and they did a whole benefits package training for students.”
The program became even more robust with the input and participation of UA Little Rock, which already had a general education concurrent credit agreement with Vilonia Public Schools. With the Vilonia Pathways Academy, the university provides high school students the opportunity to earn college credit and professional certifications while still in high school that will give them a head start in the workplace or in finishing their degree after graduation.
Dr. Hank Bray, chair of the university’s Department of Construction Management and Civil and Construction Engineering, said the school has embedded its associate’s of science in construction degree which students can complete while they are in high school.
“If they want to, they can graduate from high school with an associate’s degree. And this is a true two-plus-two degree; if they complete that [associate’s] degree, they will have two years left at UA Little Rock to complete a bachelor’s degree. Everything they take in high school would count towards their bachelor’s degree.”
Bray said the concept represents big, bold thinking and has the potential to completely recast students’ perspective when it comes to pursuing a career in construction or other skilled jobs.
“Over my career, what I’ve figured out was that if you don’t get some basic interest or understanding about opportunities by the time kids are in junior high, you’ve lost them,” Bray said. “This is a holistic approach, and what that means is when these young children are in kindergarten and first grade, it’s putting things into context. When you learn to read, you learn to read about building projects. You learn to read about buildings and highways instead of other types of stories so you’re exposing young minds to this at an early age.
“And then when you learn math and science, it’s easy to put these into the context of building something. Practical math is not lower-level math. It’s word problems that say, ‘What’s the distance from here to here on this set of plans?’ There’s constant exposure to the trades through this program, and students are able to keep their options open.”
Arkansas’ skilled labor shortage is not unique. Long before the pandemic hit, contractors around the country were bemoaning the dearth of workers, caught in the pincers of mass retirement of older employees and decades of the education community pushing four-year degrees over two-year and technical education. It was a slow-approaching iceberg that everyone saw coming, Bray said.
“We’ve known for 30 years that there was a looming labor shortage, particularly in the trades, and our efforts to head it off have been largely ineffective,” he said. “I have been in construction education for 33 years and 33 years ago, we acted like this was as serious as a heart attack, but we just haven’t done a good job addressing it.
“There have been some things that have been tried: We’ve tried government training programs and incentives to contractors. We have employed what I call the shop model in our schools. I’m in my 60s, and people my age grew up with the opportunity to take a shop class that taught everything from carpentry to welding which we thought was really going to work. But it didn’t because, let’s be honest, there was a stigma attached to taking those classes. It did not attract some of the best and brightest students. We really never overcame that problem.”
The chickens were already coming home to roost when COVID pushed the construction industry into even deeper waters. ENR.com reported in September that nine out of 10 contractors surveyed nationally were having difficulty finding craft workers, up from just over half the previous year.
Such demand has driven up what were already good rates of pay in the trades, even among the most entry-level positions. BusinessWire reported in March that the helper and apprentice-level job market was booming. Demand for roofer apprentices was up 50 percent just in the previous month with jobs going unfilled for 39 days on average; carpentry apprentice jobs were up 33 percent and sitting empty for a month, and plumber apprentice gigs were up 24 percent and going unfilled for an average of 29 days. All this despite a median hourly rate of $16 per hour or about $33,000 annually for what amounts to rank beginners.
Bray said the construction industry itself is partly to blame for the conditions under which it now struggles.
“We haven’t done a good job of explaining the benefits of these jobs,” he said. “Construction has been seen as seasonal work, and in some cases that was true. But we had a reputation problem to overcome, and we haven’t done a good job with that.
“As a result, young people do not understand that these jobs have tremendous earning potential. There are plenty of large contractors in Arkansas who have employer benefit plans including employer-provided health insurance, retirement plans and the ability to make enough money that you could raise a family, be the sole breadwinner and still be home every night. It’s a gold mine. That’s not well-known, and that’s the biggest obstacle.”
This fall, the first year of Vilonia Pathways Academy attracted around 50 students, spread out more or less evenly over ninth through 12th graders. Riggans looks for those numbers to grow substantially as the program breaks in, and is already thinking of how to adapt the program to address other trades outside of construction. She views this effort, which comes after decades in education, as a true calling serving both students and the community at large.
“To my knowledge, no other program like this exists in Arkansas,” she said. “We’re building it, and we’ve attracted interest, and I suspect next year there will be more students. The theory is, we would start with the commercial construction industry, and then we would add additional areas. We can tweak what we have to take on another industry.
“We feel like this is the model for workforce education. That’s the whole purpose. I’ve got 32 years in education, and I’ve come to realize that in what time I have left in education, my heart is to make sure that students are prepared for the workforce.”