By Jeff Wilson–
Perched in the driver’s seat of a cement truck operating the controls, Tyler was having the time of his life. The junior from Sleepy Hollow High School beamed as he pulled a lever and watched the discharge chute move from side to side. “That was so fun!” he gushed as he jumped down from the truck.
Tyler was one of thirteen students (three girls) from Sleepy Hollow’s Career Success Program to get a taste of the trades on March 31 at the Hudson Valley Construction Career Day. Hosting about 650 students in the gymnasium of Rockland Community College, this impressive interactive event was sponsored by the Construction Industry of Westchester and Hudson Valley, Inc. the Building Contractors Association of Westchester and Mid-Hudson, Inc. and the Construction Advancement Institute of Westchester and Mid-Hudson, Inc. Multiple labor unions and construction companies were also on hand, manning separate work stations. Their goal was to educate high-school students about rewarding careers in the well-paying building industry—challenging the notion that a college degree is the only path to financial well-being.
This event was hands-on in its truest sense. Donning hard hats (compliments of the organizers), students moved from one station to the next, performing different construction jobs while being supervised by union professionals. They operated cranes, concrete mixers and dump trucks; experimented with electrical circuitry; soldered and welded; cut sheet metal; ran jackhammers and remote control drills; tried on a vest designed for work in manholes and laid bricks and cinder blocks. Throughout, the students were briefed on the benefits of union membership, including apprenticeships, medical and retirement benefits and eventual salaries of over $90 an hour in some fields.
“We’ve been doing this event for 25 years,” said Matthew Pepe, Assistant to the President of the CIC and organizer of the expo. “It started off in the dot.com boom in 1999 and 2000. The parents all wanted their kids to be dot.com millionaires, so we had to [inform] schools and parents that you can make a darn good living in construction, working for a union. It’s a career, not just a job.”
Teaching Assistant Wendy Waczek, a chaperone of the Sleepy Hollow class, expressed some of the students’ sentiments. “They’re looking at the money and [wondering if] maybe college isn’t for them,” she said. “There are programs at community colleges with training, but there are also programs that each of the unions have in different areas where they get paid a percentage of the full union wage for the first five years as they’re apprenticing.”
Waczek explained the appeal of the lucrative construction business to immigrant students in particular. “We have a large Latino population, a lot of kids whose families have just arrived in the U.S., and even if they might want to go [to college] there’s no money. This is a really good chance to have a productive life.”
And the kids – what did they say?
“Laying bricks was really fun,” admitted Aiden, a senior.
Ovier, a junior, had another preference: “I like the electrical union,” he allowed. “You can go to college and learn it at the same time.”
As for Tyler, he must have had visions of construction sites pounding in his head. “I like the jackhammer and trucks. If I was able to drive and work a jackhammer for a living, I would do it,” he shared.